The New Yorker - Monday, July 24, 2017 - Written by Richard Brody

Jeffrey Swann: The Interpretive Extremes of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations

In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a Viennese music publisher, composed a little waltz and sent it to dozens of composers—he wanted each of them to write and send him a single variation, which he’d publish together in one volume. Among those he asked was Ludwig van Beethoven, who was forty-eight years old at the time and had recently been studying Bach’s music. Beethoven accepted the challenge, but rather than write a single variation on the theme he decided, instead, to write thirty-three, and to issue it as one work, which he didn’t finish for four years—by which time he was also deep into the composition of his Ninth Symphony.

Alongside Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations are one of the twin peaks of the classical keyboard repertory. The music reflects the Olympian comedy of its origins and the profundity of Beethoven’s last works, with variations ranging from the mock-heroic to the whimsical to the wildly parodistic to the delicately rhapsodic to the austerely sublime. It’s also a piece that admits of a vast interpretive range, from the mercurial agitation of Friedrich Gulda’s studio recording to the severe grandeur of the one by Rudolf Serkin. In a performance on Friday night at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse, as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival, I saw the pianist Jeffrey Swann deliver a thrilling performance that emphasized the composition’s contrasting extremes—the comedy was uproarious, the silences were celestial, the speed was reckless, the intricacy was ecstatic. Many of the best concerts I’ve ever attended have featured non-celebrity musicians in modest venues, and Swann’s performance takes its place among them.

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