CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2012)

Fabula Classica 2242 / *****

This marvellous anthology of historical piano recordings is devoted to the waltz, highlighting some of piano’s greatest names from ages past. It begins with the original version of Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, a deceptively difficult piece than the music suggests, played with much insouciance by Artur Schnabel. Listen to how Rachmaninov himself approaches Chopin’s Three Waltzes Op.64, with inner voices revealed and none of the speed-mongering that modern pianists favour. There are many showpieces on display; Joseph Lhevinne’s teasing ease in the Strauss-Schulz-Evler Blue Danube, Arthur Rubinstein in his namesake Anton Rubinstein’s vertiginous Waltz-Fantasy, or Claudio Arrau’s imperious take on the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, before he abandoned it forever.

There are some rarities which are all but forgotten, such as Saint-SaĆ«ns’s Study in a Form of a Waltz, from the incomparable Alfred Cortot on one his better days, Mischa Levitzki’s charming little Arabesque-Valsantefrom the composer’s own fingers, or Arensky’s Waltz in C major, balletic grace on two pianos by Harold Bauer and Ossip Gabrilowitsch. For its sheer simplicity, Percy Grainger’s take on Brahms’s Waltz No.15 (from Op.39) should not be missed. These recordings date mostly before 1940, so do not expect pristine sound. The performances are quite something else, and demand study by today’s piano students.  

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations
Harmonia Mundi 902901 / *****

There are many recordings of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations but this is only its second recording on the fortepiano, the modern piano’s soft-edged and mellow-toned forerunner. In 1819, the published Anton Diabelli invited fifty of Vienna’s musical fraternity to write a variation each on a banal little waltz theme of his. Beethoven obliged with 33 if his own, and his 1823 publication has become one of the cornerstones of the piano repertoire. But what of the others?

German fortepianist Andreas Staier selects ten which include the likes of Carl Czerny (technically adroit as expected), Johann Hummel (florid and fussy), Franz Xavier Mozart (Wolfgang Amadeus’s son sounding very busy), Schubert (a graceful number unsurprisingly in the minor key) and Liszt (who was 8-years-old but already a barnstorming virtuoso in the Beethovenian mould). Staier also adds a dramatic prelude of his own that links the others with the Beethoven set. In his magisterial account played on a fortepiano modelled upon Conrad Graf’s original, Staier also uses several exotic pedals in some of the variations. Try Variation No.23 to hear the Turkish effect of the janissary stop, which makes the entire instrument shake, rattle and roll. Not just a sly gimmick, but a reflection of the tastes and trends of the age. Delicious.