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Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on Fortepiano & Steinway
Edmund Battersby Naxos 8.505002 (2 CDs)

by Elena Vorotko (Royal Academy of Music Piano Gallery)

In this enterprising Naxos release Edmund Battersby investigates Beethoven's 33 Variations on the Waltz by Diabelli (Op 120) on both a modern Steinway Piano (NY 1976) and a Fortepiano (Conrad Graf 1820 copy, R.J. Regier 1997). He demonstrates his thorough knowledge of both instruments and strong, yet sensitive technical command. His aim in recording the two different versions was to show that this masterpiece is more ‘instrumental' than ‘abstract', possibly as a reaction to Charles Rosen's claim that keyboard music of the late Beethoven is unrelated to any instrument, but is divinely abstract.

Battersby bases his approach on his experience that many of the piece's interpretative puzzles seemed to him to be solved by the qualities of the ‘correct' instrument. Indeed, the more percussive Graf, but still the more intimate in its true una corda shades, seemed to have influenced Battersby's approach to the piece on the Steinway. Some details, often ‘pianistically' dismissed, prove to be very effective on both instruments, once their significance has been heard on the Graf.

The sound quality of the Graf recording is very good, and indeed one is tempted to mistake it for the Steinway at the start. The microphone was evidently placed very close, as one can hear pedal squeaks and changes as well as typical clicking instrumental noises. However, the less resonant bass and more percussive upper treble still reveal the true nature of the Graf fortepiano. The sound of a free string does not sustain its volume as long as the modern Steinway, which leads to many advantages as well as problems in creating an interpretation.

For example, the renowned Beethoven sforzando makes much more sense on the Graf, as after a strong attack the tail of the sound disappears more quickly than on the Steinway. However, Battersby rarely treated sfs as special accents and in most cases the dynamic was generally forte (Vars. VI, IX, XIV, XXVIII and XIX). For example, Var. V, despite the brilliantly accurate repetitions, could make a stronger impact if the f/p and sf were more distinct on both instruments. Battersby even uses the una corda in the second section (bar 16) to mute the sound of the Graf, but on the whole, it is all a fraction too loud and general. Maybe the handling of the Graf needs more space? However, on the Steinway the characteristic sf (bars 24-31) is not distinctive enough to be evidently an intended part of a character. These dynamics, and such stylistically significant features as sf, are crucial to the character and in my opinion should not be compromised. The lack of this exciting and eminent element is quite provoking, and it would be interesting to know the reasoning behind this choice?

The Thema opens with a somewhat mellower sound on the Graf and the sfs are more effective in the immediacy of the sound disappearance. On the Steinway Battersby's control over dynamic shades is more fluent then on the Graf. However, on the latter, the closing ff is much more exciting, because of the added drumming effect of the shallow action as well as the aforementioned peculiarity. On the larger scale, his dynamics worked in some lovely contrasts, as in the Fuga and Var. XXI. The latter, very contrasting, variation reminds me of the Bagatelle no 2 op. 126 – its fiery and forceful character followed by a more delicate, feminine calm theme. The ff sound of the Graf, even if a little brutal, only adds to the excitement of the music when it is juxtaposed with the pedalled legato lines.

On the Graf, to my taste Var. II does not contrast enough to Var. I. On the Steinway, by using the una corda, Battersby manages to create a distinctive mood. (I like how Stephen Kovacevich [Philips 422969-2] creates here a whole different world, delicate and intimate in sound and portamente touch, which reminds me of a ‘second subject' in sonata form.)

Another unusual feature of the Graf is the unevenness of the keyboard's quality and volume, which lets us differentiate the registers and find characteristic sound qualities, so useful in colouring the textures. The imaginative use of this expressive device in the score (especially in Vars. VII, XIII, XVI, and the Fuga) reveals its importance to the composer. The striking L.H. octaves of the Var. VII are much more effective on the Graf than on the Steinway, probably because the Graf's treble is not as ringing, leaving more space for the L.H. and making the different timbre of the registers more apparent. A lovely diminuendo is achieved with the help of register in bar 6 of Var. XXIX. Var. XVIII is the one where the registers show their utmost significance, creating a vivid dialogue, beautifully crafted on both pianos, but more contrasting on the Graf. In the harp-like effect of the falling arpeggios in Var. XXVI, I think, Battersby used one Ped per chord (4-5 bars). Again, the sound specificities of registers are very evident, as the passages are coloured in peculiar hues that one would not imagine to such extent on a modern piano.

Furthermore, the Graf has an advantage (or disadvantage) in its after-resonance; the dampers are not heavy and large enough to stop the string from vibrating immediately, so one can hear the sound trail for some time after the key is abandoned. This is especially effective when f and p chords are contrasted, as in Var. XIII. Here, the resonance of the f chords decays gradually, and Battersby plays the p response as an echo, still veiled in the preceding harmonics, creating a remarkable effect, well found and delicately executed by the performer. Something similar happens on the Steinway but the veil is more acoustical than instrumental.

Var. XXIV (Fughetta) on the Graf is my favourite of all, very finely crafted and expressive. The una corda sound is sublime, so different and special. The voicing is extremely clear and meaningful, even though Battersby uses a lot of pedal, especially in the first two bars - one Ped , evidently to give it more resonance. It is quite apparent that the Graf was the inspiration for the Steinway interpretation; however, the pedalling could be more accurate and modest on the latter instrument. I admire how Battersby used the natural resonance of the Graf; it clearly altered his hearing of the work on the Steinway, as in the Poco adagio bridge passage to Var. XXXIII. That is absolutely magical, a fantastic feeling of space, sound, time, emotion of the harmony, and direction… Mesmerising!

Exploring Var. XXIX was a revelatory. Battersby actually breathed in the semi-quaver rests in such an organic way, that it did not interrupt the melodic line. By contrast, Richter [Regis RRC1140; live recording] seems unaware of this ‘small' detail, as he covers it with pedal in a continuous flow of sound. Kovacevich makes the pauses too obvious, the sound is sharply stopped by the dampers. However, Battersby proves that these rests are not only significant, but they were intended to form a fragile and irresolute character and one can carry the line over them without interruption. On the Graf this is much more effective than on the Steinway, as the sound has a gradually decaying tail. In Var. IX, Battersby used the Graf's resonance to great advantage. In the second section, the L.H. thematic figuration creates a dynamic impulse, leaving the contrasting p motifs to ‘appear' from a cloud of resonating instrument, without the use of pedal. This is a very beautiful and unusual effect, which of course, does not happen to similar extent on the Steinway.

Issues of pedal, clarity and tempo arise when considering the two instruments. On one hand, the Steinway delivers at times more clarity (efficient dampers) and it is easily over-pedalled (greater resonance of free strings). On the other hand, the Graf might require a slower tempo, to give it space; that would result in better clarity but may need more pedal to sustain the sound.

The sparkle of Var. X is very impressive, so is the tempo. To some tastes is may seem too fast, but one can only admire the technical mastery and precision of Battersby's execution on the Graf. However, the Steinway version is somewhat clearer, perhaps owing to the contemporary ear being more accustomed to the latter's sound-world, and again, the damper action. The following bravura Variations seem all played too fast? In Var. XVI it may be good to have more clarity in L.H. on the Graf. However, it does achieve the sense of a joyfully unstoppable force. In Var. XXIII, Battersby displays very virtuosic playing, and the repetitions work very well. Yet again, the Steinway wins in quality. Battersby treated the triplets like grace notes in both versions of the Var. XXVII, his clarity worse on the Graf. On both pianos Var. XXXII, Fuga opens with a great ringing quality, but the voicing is somewhat clearer on the Steinway.

However, the Steinway can be overwhelming, as in the final Var. XXXIII, over-pedalled from bar 34 to the end. Likewise, in Var. XXX, the voicing is good on the Graf but over-pedalled on the Steinway version. In Var. I the pauses are not constant; when the dynamic changes in bars 12, 14, 25 and 27 Battersby over- pedals, maybe to give some singing quality to the piano in comparison to the mighty forte on the Graf? However, as that happens in the Steinway version as well, it is evidently a part of his interpretation.

Var. VIII is very beautiful. The melodic line unfolds above the mellow and yet clear L.H. figurations. Battersby uses una corda and generous damper pedal (in general one per bar on the Graf and more frequent on Steinway) to create this smooth flowing, whilst ignoring the quaver pauses at the beginning of each bar on both instruments. This surprises me, as he did some exquisite effects with the pauses under a melody in some of the following variations (Vars. XXIX, XXXI and XXXIII).

Var. XX is absolutely gorgeous. He lets all the voices participate in the chorus, at first forming rich harmonic lines and later bringing out some touching solos, as the texture moves to the upper register. Battersby again ignores the only pause in the entire variation in bar 20, which I believe has its meaning and purpose. One can hear the squeaks of pedal of the Graf, which is quite amusing.

The issues of articulation are very important when dealing with any historical instrument, and Battersby prepared some surprises. In the Graf version of Var. XXV, L.H. is played legato, but on the Steinway non legato which gives clarity, probably inspired by Graf. Var. IV is delightful in its character, well expressed by the skilful phrasing, voicing, dynamics and use of registers. I found that the humble and tasteful rubati Battersby used to emphasise the centres of the phrases worked very well. It is interesting that on the Steinway Battersby introduced some non legato articulation in the slurred passages (bars 3, 5, 11, 12 and 24-30). This was probably a change imported from the Graf, as on the latter the same passages sound more crystal-drop-like, and on Steinway this articulation adds to the exuberant mood, even though it contradicts the text.

The bravura Var. VI is thrilling in the technical virtuosity and precision. I like very much the poised character and the skilful trills. On the Steinway, Battersby used a non legato touch again in the upper register (bars 28-32), and this wonderfully imitates the Graf sound. In Var. XVII (and XXXIII) Battersby is trying to attract our attention to the fact that the Alberti-bass like figurations are polyphonic, as he follows the top and bottom lines of the semi-quaver figurations quite remarkably on both pianos, without losing the shape. He creates a wonderful mandolin sound in Var. XV on the Steinway by using the una corda pedal and balanced wrist staccato. I presume the Graf inspired this, although it sounds more convincing on the Steinway. Var. XII, gracefully whirling, reveals skilful handling of the tricky triple passages - maybe Beethoven's reminiscence of the triple trills for which he was famed as a young pianist. Battersby uses quite a lot of pedal and yet keeps the clarity by slightly separating the double notes on both instruments.

The problem of the Graf to the modern ear is the short-living sound and, if approached with the modern piano technique, the lack of legato . However, if executed in the Clavichord manner, with overlapping finger action, the Fortepiano will start to sing. To some extent the Graf Fortepiano of the 1820s, with its light and shallow Viennese action and straight strings, relates more to the harpsichord and clavichord than the modern Steinway, which has a much heavier action and completely different acoustic specificities. Thus, some of the Baroque technique is still useful on the nineteenth century fortepianos, including micro-rubati and clear articulation. Furthermore, the absence of agrafe on the Graf fortepianos (the staple-like device that kept the strings down, even in the case of very strong hammer attack) lets the string lose its harmonics, because it jolts up at the attack. Therefore, the string will vibrate for longer, if one finds a firm and yet not too heavy and sharp touch.

Var. XXXI is the emotional centre of the piece, an Aria and a Sicilienne at the same time. Battersby treats it on the Graf in a neo-baroque manner by passionately speaking each note. In comparison, Kovacevich executes this variation in more pre-romantic manner: more pedal, generalised runs of passages like grace notes, and sensitive phrasing, reminiscent of Chopin. Interestingly, Battersby's Steinway version is also more colourful, smooth, better shaped and altogether more convincing. Does this mean that Battersby tried to show that this is how dissimilar the interpretation can be on the different pianos? However, the actual phrasing and harmonic emphasis of the two versions are similar, only the touch is different. To my personal taste, Battersby's treatment of the soprano line on the Graf could be more varied and singing. I understand his point of seeing this variation as very declamatory, but to me, the melodic line is too percussive. I presume that Battersby uses a piano legato technique by imposing the same weight pressure on each note, and this would almost prevent the Graf from singing. However, this is an opinion coming from a different perspective and the way Battersby performs it is moving and strong.

Battersby uses well such advantages of the Graf as the clarity of polyphonic textures, beautiful sound on the una corda, exciting bravura of the percussive upper register, the peculiarities of somewhat quicker dying sound, its resonance and textures. He reveals these qualities through a thought out interpretation, at times creating truly magical effects. The initial idea of exploring Beethoven's masterpiece on a fortepiano very close to the composer's own instrument is fascinating and the outcome of this project very fruitful.

I enjoyed reading about the Graf fortepiano, and I think the information was quite inclusive and relevant. One can find out about the performer's aims and aspirations, quite appropriately in his biography; Battersby likes to subject great works for the piano ‘to a kind of dialectical process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis'. His idea was to prove by these recordings that the Diabelli Variations are ‘less abstract and more instrumental than originally perceived'. I very much like the vivid parallel with Goethe's saying “one cannot perceive colours one has not seen”.

I look forward to reading more about Edmund Battersby's own experience of dealing with the Variations on the two pianos, expanding further on his idea of instrumentality of this piece; a few points on some of the more general issues arising would have been very involving and could have been a useful and fascinating guide to the listener's attention.

Concerning presentation, Lia M. Jensen tells us the history of the work's appearance and lays out its structure. Her notes are very informative and easy to read. She emphasises that the Variations assume a ‘monumental narrative structure', and sees the notions of the musical past and future, the transcendental and the commonplace, unite gloriously in this masterwork. For study purposes Naxos's mismatch between track numbers and variations Nos. I-XVI is an unnecessary nuisance; it is righted with the Var. XVII attacca, but linking the Thema and Var. I as track 1 instead would have avoided the problem.

© Elena Vorotko (pictured)

[Elena Vorotko is studying for her PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where she is assistant curator of the York Gate collection of Early Keyboard Instruments. As a piano recitalist, she can be heard playing contemporary music in the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series - Purcell Room 12 January 2006 (Editor)] 


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