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|Alfred Cortot (piano)|
|Valerie Tryon (piano)|
Before Beethoven grappled with them, the conventions of classical variation form were more of an inhibition than an inspiration. There are many delightful examples by Mozart and Haydn but, with the exception of the latter’s double Variations in F minor, they wrote nothing in that form to compare with the best of their sonata movements. For his first dozen sets of piano variations, none of them dignified by an opus number, even Beethoven accepted the limitations of the genre. In 1802, however, with the fifteen variations and fugue that form the ‘Eroica’ Variations Op 35 he deliberately set out to change all that. So began the process by which the theme-and-variations form rose to such an elevated status that—to take examples from this programme alone—it fulfilled the visionary requirements of the closing movement of Beethoven’s last sonata and inspired the greatest of Mendelssohn’s keyboard works.
Mendelssohn scarcely needed to describe his Variations in D minor as ‘serious’. Contributing to a piano album in aid of the Beethoven monument in Bonn, he no doubt wanted to dissociate his music from the frothy virtuoso stuff that could be expected from some of the other composer–pianists—Czerny, Döhler, Henselt, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, Taubert and Thalberg—who, along with Chopin and Liszt, had been invited to write pieces for the same album. It is quite clear from Mendelssohn’s earnest theme, presented in severe four-part harmonies, that nothing frivolous is about to happen.
Far from being an inconsequential series of entertaining ideas, the seventeen variations are carefully structured in groups. The first half of the work is built on a gradual increase in tempo and rhythmic activity from the Andante sostenuto of both the theme itself and variation No 1, by way of a strict canon in staccato semiquavers in No 4 and the agitated syncopations of No 5, to the Allegro vivace of Nos 8 and 9. The scurrying triplet semiquavers of No 9 run up against the measured (Moderato) fugato of No 10, which is followed by the cantabile, melancholy No 11 and the violently percussive No 12. The one concession to a virtuoso fashion of the day is the application of Thalberg’s ‘three-hand’ technique to sustain the melodic line as a middle voice in No 13.
The way the score is set out suggests that up to this point the variations should follow each other with either the shortest of breaks or no break at all. Before No 14, however, Mendelssohn inserts a pause, presumably to highlight the consolatory aspect of the one variation in the major, an enchanting Adagio chorale. From there the tempo increases again through the syncopated chords of No 15 to the dazzling Allegro vivace of Nos 16 and 17, which last then slows down for a brief recall of the original theme over left-hand tremolandos. The haste of the Presto coda is intensified by the impression that one hand is chasing the other until they synchronize in the closing bars.
from notes by Gerald Larner © 2009
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