Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op 120; Bagatelles, Op 119; Bagatelle ‘Für Elise’ WoO 59

Reviewed on Fri 03 May, 2019

Imogen Cooper offers her interpretation of this many-sided work through an uncorrupted text, pianism of rounded sonority, a strong bass line, and a depth of feeling that sheds other lights on the music, every repeat observed.

Whatever Beethoven thought of Diabelli’s waltz (in two halves, each half repeated), it was the source of a unique set of variations that don’t always follow the original form, eg Vars 2 & 7 where the first half is not repeated, Vars 10 & 12 where both parts meld into one; and many have first- and second-time bars. Unusually, too, Beethoven marked the waltz Vivace, encouraging a wide range of tempi. Andras Schiff (ECM), for instance, plays it close to Presto. Not Imogen Cooper, perhaps believing that vivacity is about mood rather than speed; and she offers her interpretation of this many-sided work through an uncorrupted text, pianism of rounded sonority, a strong bass line, and a depth of feeling that sheds other lights on the music, every repeat observed. Take Variation 14, marked Grave e maestoso: very slow and majestic it is, too – chords discerningly weighted, tempo finely sustained; many a pianist, including Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, misses its total gravity. Next try Variation 22, with a quotation from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and paced Allegro molto to highlight its comic element. Cooper is deliberate, emphasising detail. As you go down the line, experience the chorale-like Variation 24, beautifully graded tones creating calm and tranquillity in Variation 26, precisely gauged articulation in Variation 27, movingly felt Variations 29 to 31, a forceful double fugue in Variation 32, then to Variation 33, a Menuett most tenderly shaped and steered into deeper waters ending a performance of significant insight, stature and magnitude, qualities also to the fore for the rest of the programme. Opening this collection are the Op 119 Bagatelles, twelve pieces small but mighty, with Cooper fully attuned to their varying characteristics, and adding an evocative ‘Für Elise’ to round out her supremely commanding disc that Chandos ought to have released in SACD.
–Nalen Anthoni