Anton Diabelli may not have been a very prolific composer, but as a music publisher by trade, he turned out to be a savvy businessman. In 1819, he wrote a short 32-bar waltz and invited composers far and wide to write variations on his little melody. Fifty-one responded, and Diabelli eventually published two anthologies of variations under the title Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (“Patriotic Association of Artists”).
The greatest of these sets of variations came from Ludwig van Beethoven, who reportedly scoffed when first presented with the tune. But he came back to it, and eventually wrote 33 wide-ranging takes on the Diabelli waltz. Along with J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven's “Diabelli Variations” are considered one of the greatest examples of endless inventiveness, as the variations build on one another, often referencing earlier bits and themes.
Two hundred years later, pianist Rudolf Buchbinder has commissioned a new set of variations from eleven different composers. All of them, including Beethoven’s monumental work and eight more variations from the Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (including music by Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, and Franz Liszt) are included on a new two-disc set from Deutsche Grammophon, “The Diabelli Project.”
Buchbinder has recorded Beethoven’s variations before, but as the pianist explains in the album notes, today, he feels freer with his interpretations, and the result is a session that feels downright playful.
The “New Variations” range from total deconstruction of the waltz (Max Richter’s “Diabelli,” Tan Dun’s “Blue Orchid”), to jazzy showpieces like Christian Jost’s “Rock It, Rudi.” My favorite tracks include the latter, and others that playfully tease the original Diabelli melody, like Lera Auerbach’s “Diabellical Waltz” and “Verlust,” by Toshio Hosokawa. In his variation, Hosokawa stretches the Diabelli waltz’s rhythm and chord structure, adding neo-romantic flourishes up that pause for reflection every so often. The piece concludes with extreme low register chord clusters and solitary notes high on the keyboard that evoke the English translation of Hosokawa’s title, “loss.” The old adage proves true—“big things come from small beginnings,” and Diabelli’s little waltz, once allegedly referred to by Beethoven as a “cobbler’s patch” because of a repeating phrase used to patch up a key change in the middle, provides fertile ground for today’s artists.