‘That piece of folly mine? Oh, Beethoven, what an ass you were in those days!’ This is what Beethoven said in his later years on hearing a friend playing the 32 Variations on an original theme in C minor, WoO80, and not recognising it, and so begin Angela Hewitt’s excellent booklet notes for this release. Beethoven’s deafness could be a reason for excusing his inability to recognise his own music, but with so much composed in a lifetime of intense creativity we can easily allow him such a moment, even if it might have been a rare spot of false modesty. Angela Hewitt’s performance is a seriously great one and would no doubt have gained the composer’s approval. Her notes point out both detail and structure, influences and associations from the Baroque to Schubert, and technical aspects to listen out for in just about every variation. These are not given separate access points, but do have useful time references amongst those booklet notes if you want to find one in particular.
Angela Hewitt mentions her long-standing affection for the 6 Variations on an original theme in F major, Op 34, reflected in Beethoven’s own enthusiasm for this and the Op 35 set, on which he wrote to his publisher, ‘Usually I have to wait for other people to tell me when I have new ideas, because I never know this myself. But this time—I myself can assure you that in both these works the manner is quite new for me.’ Hewitt’s delight in the contrasts in this work is palpable, from the virtuoso runs early on to Beethoven’s ranging over the keyboard, from gruff chords in the lower register to music-box delicacy in the middle and upper registers. The placement of this piece in advance of Op. 35 is logical in more ways than their proximity in Beethoven’s catalogue, with its funeral march foreshadowing that in the ‘Eroica’ symphony, a theme that he had used before and a further connection to the 15 Variations and a fugue on an original theme 'Eroica'. This is described by Hewitt as his ‘most bravura-oriented set … there is a lot of hand-crossing, and an awful lot of jumping about, and the mood on the whole—at least until we reach the mysterious variation 14 in minor mode—is one of joyous carnival. Or as the critic and musicologist Michael Steinberg once said to me: ‘It’s Beethoven on a spring bank holiday Monday!’
True enough, but with its symphonic duration and ‘very difficult fugue’ this is a work to challenge any pianist. Angela Hewitt creates the right atmosphere at the beginning, with just the right amount of heft to indicate the long journey ahead, but with a reassuring lightness of touch that tells us that the journey will be enjoyable as well as substantial. One of the best versions of this work I’ve heard in not-so recent years was by Ronald Brautigam on the BIS label. This is recorded on a fortepiano, but that takes nothing away from the colourful verve and energy in a performance that has all of the expressive variety you could wish for on any instrument. Hewitt is a few minutes longer overall, but there is never any feeling of drag in the music. Her instrument allows for more sustain at crucial moments and in the slower variations, so a more expansive feel is to be expected and can be relished. Theatricality seems to have been a preoccupation of mine when comparing other versions to Brautigam, but while Hewitt has plenty of thunder when required the impression here is one of inventive fantasy and even some good-humoured wit along the way rather than overblown stagecraft intended to impress on any superficial level.
After the tour de force of Op 35 we are given some lighter sets of variations, starting out with 9 Variations on the aria 'Quant'è più bello' from Giovanni Paisiello's La molinara. Paisiello was a big star in his day, in demand at royal courts and also much admired by Mozart. The aria used here extols the attractions of pastoral life rather than in the city, and Beethoven responds to its almost naïve folk-like tune with disarming directness. This is paired with the charming 6 Variations on the duet 'Nel cor più non mi sento' from the same opera, which starts out with a tune you feel you should know and probably do, as it was also taken up by composers such as Paganini and is still a favourite amongst opera singers today.
Beethoven arranged all kinds of folk songs from around the British Isles, work that was initiated by his connection with George Thomson, a civil servant based in Edinburgh who also published folksong arrangements by Haydn and Hummel. Beethoven sent both the 7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ and the 5 Variations on 'Rule, Britannia' to Thomson, no doubt with hopes of some commercial success in Britain. These are both pieces with plenty of high spirits, and Angela Hewitt finds the humour in each and brings it out with consummate skill. While Beethoven considered these sets of variations as ‘not too difficult’ there is plenty of technical wizardry on display to finish this fine programme in spectacular style.
There are a few Beethoven Variations albums around, but finding two that duplicate exactly the same programme is a fairly futile project. Cédric Tiberghien’s Harmonia Mundi collection comes close and is very good indeed. Hearing a French pianist play ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ will no doubt give some listeners a similar frisson to hearing them recorded in a church in Berlin, but Angela Hewitt’s CD is very hard to beat indeed. The notes for this album end with a poignant message, as ‘the last of my many recordings for Hyperion made using my own Fazioli F2781009 (every recording since October 2003, with just two exceptions for which I used other Faziolis). When the present recording sessions were over, the movers accidentally dropped it, and the piano came to an untimely end. The loss was devastating, as I loved it so much and it did everything I wanted it to do. May this recording be a testament to its huge range of colour that always served the music so well.’ Well, it certainly is an impressive testament, being richly inventive and colourful, and beautifully recorded in the excellent acoustic of Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche. I’m not usually a big fan of entire programmes of variations, but this particular recording is a delight from start to finish.