Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli, op. 120. Anatol Ugorski, piano. DG 435 615-2 [DDD]; 61:27.
Produced by Werner Mayer.

reprinted by permission from Fanfare; reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman

I came to this disc with low expectations, having read about Ugorskiís recording of op. 111. He was said to take forty minutes to get through the piece; Iíd never heard anyone top even thirty minutes before. And sure enough, these Diabelli Variations turn out to be eccentric. But they contain enough impressive playing to deserve a thorough analysis of why, ultimately, they miss the mark.

Tempos may be a problem in op. 111, but in the Diabellis they misfire in only a few places. The worst example is the first variation, marked Alla Marcia maestoso. Like Sviatoslav Richter, Ugorski plays it far too slowly for anyone to march to. Moreover, he plays it at two to a bar rather than at Beethovenís 4/4, making it sound twice slower still. (The "rightness" of a tempo is always a relative thing, and one of the variables that affects it is pulse.) Variation 14, Grave e maestoso, is interminable; and the 29th is too slow for the non troppo that Beethoven marked to qualify the adagio. Ugorskiís overall timing is almost ten minutes slower than that of Brendel, whose pacing seems about right to me. Still, most of Ugorskiís tempi felt acceptable; tempo doesnít account for the interpretive misfire.

Nor is Ugorskiís voice-leading the problem. The only place where it is muddy is the first playing of the canon in Variation 19, but even that is lucid on the repeat. And Ugorski does pay attention to making this huge work cohere. Characteristically, he takes the concern for unity to unprecedented lengths. He not only observes Beethovenís many indications for playing variations without pause, but even continues to hold down the pedal from the final chords of Variation 17 throughout the first few bars of Variation 18.

Ugorski plays Diabelliís waltz itself with more inflection than usual, hesitating a little before the left handís sforzando in bar 3. That touch of rubato proves characteristic. In many of the slower or softer variations, Ugorski plays with far more metrical freedom than Iíve ever imagined. Sometimes it beguiles me, as in the arabesque in Variation 18 (bars 8-16), where he starts slowly and accelerates to the end. But at other times it annoys: in Variation 13, the forte/piano joke would be funnier played at a steadier tempo (Ugorski slows down considerably for the piano chords, as does Richter). Whether so much rubato is idiomatic is an open question; in his later years, Beethoven is said to have played fairly freely. Still, the real test of rhythmic freedom is not historical but musical. The greatest practitioners of tempo rubato - such as Callas or Furtwängler - could find that elusive zone where one is both absolutely free and absolutely strict (as Richter's teacher, Neuhaus, described his pupil's rubato). They effortlessly maintain the larger pulse while they bend the surface in just the right ways. Ugorski - and this is an unavoidably subjective judgement - tends to fall out of this zone into the realm of mannerism.

In certain other respects, thereís less question that Ugorski distorts Beethovenís idiom. This strikes me most in the last variation, the Tempo di Minuetto moderato. This variation was problematic with Richter, whose fast tempo undercut the musicís grazioso and dolce, but Ugorski goes to the other extreme with an overslow tempo. Worse, he glides over rests and staccato notes, melting them all into a romantic goo. This variation, for all its transcendence, is more effective with a little flip to it.

Ugorski is too smooth in several other passages as well. In particular, he fails to articulate the downbeat in the Fughetta, Variation 24, and at the beginning of the Meno allegro section of Variation 21 (although the hemiolas in bars 10-12 emerge clearly), and he plays staccato in Variation 28 only in the opening measures, instead of throughout.

The over-smoothness brings us close to the core of the problem. All the individuality, probing, rhythmic freedom, and risk-taking end up seeming eccentric, I believe, because Ugorski misses the pieceís styleóthis is not a Russian romantic workóand more importantly, the pieceís spirit, which is essentially comic. That first variation is, after all, a send-up; perhaps Ugorskiís hyper-slow tempo is an attempt to make it grotesquely funny, but instead it sounds inappropriately portentous.

As a result, while this disc might interest those who collect Diabellis, it's not for the general listener. The latter might start with Brendel (Philips), whose piano tone is not as beautiful as Ugorskiís, but whose interpretation is much more convincing and probing. Other notable performances include Schnabel (Pearl or Iron Needle), Peter Serkin (out of print), and several others-- among them, in spite of my complaints, Richter, whose Diabellis can be thrilling even to those of us who think he misinteprets certain aspects of the piece.

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