Beethoven Diabelli Variations
Here is a trio, indeed; for in Brendel, Bishop-Kovacevich and Serkin we have three of the gramophone's finest interpreters of the Diabelli Variations. Among recordings not currently available, only the Schnabel and the Rosen are comparably fine. Arrau (Philips), though striking, is, in the last resort, a more obviously idiosyncratic interpreter of the work, unusually angst-ridden; as is Richter (also Philips), though in his case it is a more lyrical reading rendered idiosyncratic by what seems to be an unevenly patched together sequence of sound sources masquerading as a single concert-hall take.
Brendel has now recorded the work three times for the gramophone. At first, on Vox/Turnabout in the early 1960s, he was the brilliant iconoclast before his deeper realization of the work's essentially comic energies. And here I use 'comic' both in the narrow sense of the term (the Diabelli is, after all, full of jokes, many of them with the staying-power of the finest Wildean epigrams) and in the broader sense: what Susanne Langer has called, comedy ''as an image of human vitality holding its own in the world amid the surprises of unplanned coincidence''. In this respect, Brendel's live 1977 recording of the work, made by Philips in collaboration with the BBC and reissued on CD in 1987 (though since deleted), is still something of a landmark. The piano itself may sound a trifle battle-weary by the end, but the performance is a tour de force, a finely thought out reading seemingly improvised into life with astonishing fire and intellectual acumen; there are even times when the timing of the pauses between variations is a source of both wonderment and tension, something you never get in an edited-down studio recording. By contrast, the new recording made in the studio in 1988 is a calmer affair and here I am not talking about tempos but about the general mood. We are off the hustings and back in the study. I couldn't resist playing the two recordings side by side at various points, though since each performance has an organic life of its own, this is a largely worthless procedure. That said, I prefer the paciness of the live reading of the astonishing Var. 10, music of ''dippy ecstasy'' (Wilfred Mellers's phrase) after the Allegro pesante e risoluto of Var. 9. The newest recording is more measured as befits a reading that works its way slightly more circumspectly to the newly poised expressiveness of the final variations, the concluding Minuet now an even more sophisticated essay in sublime gracefulness.
The reissue, also on Philips, of Bishop-Kovacevich's famous 1969 recording does, however, present a considerable challenge to the new Brendel. The reissue is at bargain-price and though the booklet is bereft of notes, the CD has the full range of cueing points (omitted on CBS's Serkin reissue) and the sound has almost as much clarity and bloom as the 1988 rival. Bishop-Kovacevich was a pupil of Dame Myra Hess and his performance has a clarity, poise and vitality that has commended itself to more than one generation of collectors over the past 20 years. It is a performance that avoids other people's mistakes—the music-box trivialization of Gulda, the virtuosic chill of Katchen, Barenboim's portentousness—whilst teaching us to relish uncomplicated skill. Try the Variations Nos. 25 to 27 and you will find playing that is sensitive and exciting but quite unselfregarding; and even where Bishop-Kovacevich adopts slow tempos, as in Var. 14, there is always light in the texture and the rhythms are cleanly sculpted. It remains, perhaps, the safest 'library' recommendation for the Diabelli, and is one of the few recordings to restore the G clef in the left hand at bar 21 of Var. 15.
That said, there is still the dazzlement of Brendel's live recording and the craggy splendour of the Serkin. The Serkin is at medium price and has a fill-up, 11 Bagatelles, finely played. The sound is relatively hard and it has not been possible, I fear, to remove from the final pages of the Diabelli a strange and persistent off-stage noise, possibly mechanical but sounding like the repeated cry of an aggrieved bird. ''Healthy, unaffected, dryly energetic'', is how Tovey characterizes Diabelli's waltz theme, and that is the way Serkin plays it at the start of a performance that is lofty, severe and always dramatically keen-edged. In the humorous variations, Serkin is fierce and sardonic, as Brendel used to be. He is even at times a touch brutal; but this is not the fascist brutality of the jackboot in the face. As ever with this great pianist's Beethoven it is the elemental sound of the anvil at work in the musical forge.
So, when the bailiffs arrive, I shall secrete away the Serkin and the 1977 Brendel as well as the Bishop-Kovacevich. Which is not to ignore the more settled wonders of the latest Brendel recording. Where the Diabelli is concerned one version can never be enough.'