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Schiff caps his CD traversal of the 32 sonatas with Beethoven’s most immense piano work – the Diabelli Variations, in which the composer, not content with supreme technical ingenuity, takes interpreter and listener on a roller-coaster of high and low, melancholy and humour, like a conjuror unfolding a delightful but daunting bag of tricks, all the while keeping the secret of their fascination out of view.
Just in case we are in any doubt about Schiff’s mastery of these complex dissections of a simple theme, he plays them twice – first on a 1921 Bechstein, then on a fortepiano from Beethoven’s lifetime (c1820). This, then, is a feast for piano connoisseurs – played with unflinching self-belief, paired with two other late piano works in a way that illuminates common ties, and wrapped in demonstration-quality sound.
It is not the last word on the Diabellis. Schiff, who has programmed them for his 60th birthday recital next weekend at Wigmore Hall, seems just a little too eager to showcase his prowess: these crisply classical readings – marginally less insistent on fortepiano – short-sell the introspection, the vulnerability, the mystery, the mischief, the whimsy that Beethoven put at the heart of his superficially brilliant but intermittently soul-baring exercises. For all Schiff’s dazzling command, my preference remains with Piotr Anderszewski on Virgin Classics.
Diabelli Variations, Piano Sonata No 32, Six Bagatelles
(ECM), 2 CDs