Diabelli Variations

Diabelli Variations

Michael Houstoun

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Diabelli Variations, Op.120 in C Major 
Thirty-three variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli
Michael Houstoun 

Following the monumental set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, Michael Houstoun and Rattle proudly release a superb account of the Diabelli Variations, thirty-three variations on a waltz by Anton Duabelli composed by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1819 and 1823.

Considered to be one the great sets of variations, the Diabelli Variations are widely heralded as among the finest works for solo piano ever written. In his book, "Beethoven: The Last Decade", Martin Cooper writes, "The variety of treatment is almost without parallel, so that the work represents a book of advanced studies in Beethoven's manner of expression and his use of the keyboard, as well as a monumental work in its own right".

There is no doubt that Michael is one of the great Beethoven interpreters of the our time, one of this country's finest musicians, and an artist of exceptional skill, perception, and acuity. Beautifully recorded by Rattle's in-house engineer Steve Garden and produced with considerable perception and detail by Kenneth Young, this recording has captured Michael at the peak of his artistic clarity, focus, and insight. The Diabelli Variations is not only one of Michael Houstoun's finest recorded performances, it is also one of the most joyful and affirming albums in the Rattle catalogue.


Produced by Kenneth Young
Recorded by Steve Garden
Piano tuning by Michael Ashby
Cover art by Kim van Somaren
Design by UnkleFranc
Printing by Studio Q


RAT-D070 (August, 2017)






Diabelli Variations, Op.120 in C Major 

01  Tema (Vivace)  (0:52)
02  i. Alla marcia maestoso  (1:54)
03  ii. Poco allegro  (0:55)
04  iii. L’istesso tempo  (1:29)
05  iii. L’istesso tempo  (1:04)
06  v. Allegro vivace  (0:59)
07  vi. Allegro ma non troppo e serioso  (1:51)
08  vii. Un poco più allegro  (1:12)
09  viii. Poco vivace  (1:24)
10  ix. Allegro pesante e risoluto  (1:55)
11  x. Presto  (0:40)
12  xi. Allegretto  (1:10)
13  xii. Un poco più moto  (1:02)
14  xiii. Vivace (1:05)
15  xiv. Grave e maestoso  (4:20)
16  xv. Presto scherzando  (0:39)
17  xvi. Allegro  (1:02)
18  xvii. Allegro  (1:05)
19  xviii. Poco moderato  (1:59)
20  xix. Presto  (0:57)
21  xx. Andante  (2:17)
22  xxi. Allegro con brio – Meno allegro – Tempo primo  (1:29)
23  xxii. Allegro molto, (alla "Notte e giorno faticar" di Mozart)  (0:48)
24  xxiii. Allegro assai  (0:55)
25  xxiv. Fughetta (Andante)  (3:13)
26  xxv. Allegro  (0:51)
27  xxvi. Piacevole  (1:20)
28  xxvii. Vivace  (1:02)
29  xxviii. Allegro  (1:03)
30  xxvix. Adagio ma non troppo  (1:26)
31  xxx. Andante, sempre cantabile  (1:58)
32  xxxi. Largo, molto espressivo  (4:34)
33  xxxii. Fuga – Allegro  (3:04)
34  xxxiii. Tempo di Menuetto moderato (ma non tirarsi dietro)   (4:01)


      Total playing time: 55:37


Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven


liner notes


Michael Houstoun on the Diabelli Variations


Fabulous musician-pianist Alfred Brendel has dared to say that Beethoven's Diabelli Variations are "the greatest of all piano works". I have no argument with him. If the wish to compare them with anything arises, then the only candidate can be J. S. Bach's immortal Goldberg Variations. But whereas Bach's masterpiece resides in a universe of some spiritual certainty, contained, adored and reverenced, the Diabelli Variations threaten all boundaries, seemingly dissatisfied even with transcendence. The sensation of playing them is one of trying to punch holes in the very fabric of the cosmos, to throw light on hitherto overlooked realms of the human spirit.


A waltz by the publisher Anton Diabelli provides the theme for the variations. It has taken a lot of flak over time, but it is clearly perfect. It gives Beethoven everything he needs and it does so with great verve. I love its jaunty optimism.


And then Beethoven starts. With each variation he honours his theme whilst destroying it.


Variation l
Suddenly, the waltz is a march, the liveliness expanded to become magisterial, unstoppable. Such utter annihilation of the world of the theme might suggest irony, but Beethoven is clearly on a mission and small talk is out of the question. (Lift off)


Variation ll
Into the space cleared by the march a little dance appears, light-footed, requiring a touch more nimbleness than is first expected. (Private dance)


Variation lll
Now there is another complete change to legato, dolce and that elevated espressivo that is everywhere in Beethoven's late works. It is a move from dancing to singing without any loss of momentum. It also gives us our first taste of the pianissimo misterioso, so characteristic of Beethoven from the very beginning. (First lyric)


Variation lV
A kind of swinging increase in motion, a change from vocal to instrumental feeling, and a ratcheting up of tension are all held within a staunch counterpoint. (Upswing)


Variation V
Faster still and with a sort of military rhythm, this variation is also littered with sforzando markings – 28 of them, if you count the first repeat. (Extra kick)


Variation Vl
Beethoven marks serioso, but it is also our first taste of unfettered virtuosity, like a trapeze double act. (Flying)


Variation Vll
Faster, and with marvellous right hand pianism, but grounded by a staunch left hand. (Take that)


Variation Vlll
Teneramente, one of the most beautiful of all musical signposts, but the poco vivace makes sure we don't get lost in a swooning sentimentality. (Soothing song)


Variation lX
Beethoven takes the upbeat of Diabelli's theme and pulverises it. (Hammer-klavier)


Variation X
This fantastic variation feels like the closing of a section, as if the variations were also somehow in movements like a sonata. Presto, pianissimo, staccato, leggiermente, with trills and chords – a fine test for the performer. (Slippery slope)


Variation Xl
A new mood is established with the transformation of the same upbeat that Beethoven dealt with so violently two variations ago. Here it is graceful, lyrical, untroubled. (Gentle thoughts)


Variation Xll
The upbeat motif is inverted and a sense of increasing pressure is apparent. Sudden changes of register create a slightly disturbing atmosphere even though the veneer is smooth. (Uncertainty)


Variation Xlll
There are almost as many rests as there are notes in this amusing variation. (Mock pomp)


Variation XlV
Here a rather grand processional feeling prevails, but it is difficult to know just how serious Beethoven might be. (Measured steps)


Variation XV
A variation to be tossed away as if weightless. (Tiny joke)


Variation XVl
This workout for the left hand is followed by...


Variation XVll
... a workout for the right hand. (Double duty)


Variation XVlll
There is a conversational tone in this gentle variation with the hands agreeing to agree in the second half of the first part. (Balanced exchange)


Variation XlX
Great and highly effective virtuosity as the hands chase each other up and down the keyboard at a tremendous clip. (Catch me if you can)


Variation XX
Rather more mysterious than solemn this variation seems to inhabit a dream world. Perhaps the second section ends here. (Listen)


Variation XXl
An explosion of trills and ostinati is subdued by melancholy interruptions. (Certainly, but...)


Variation XXll
The first variation without an upbeat takes an aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni as its starting point. (Comic tribute)


Variation XXlll
Beethoven's robust humour takes the form of a mock etude, which is more difficult than many 'real' etudes. (Get to work)


Variation XXlV
This little Fughetta, with instructions to play smoothly and use the soft pedal, maintains its gentle temper even when it slides into the minor mode. (Devotion)


Variation XXV
The upbeat returns to start a fleet, soft-and-light-footed waltz, the left hand working in perpetual motion. (On tiptoe)


Variation XXVl
Beethoven combines a peaceful atmosphere (piacevole) with a charming ambiguity of pulse – the 3/8 looks like and can sound like 6/16, i.e. we can hear it in 2 instead of 3. (Floating)


Variation XXVll
There’s no ambiguity here as Beethoven flings us into another wildly virtuosic variation, a veritable tangling of the hands. (Reckless race)


Variation XXVlll
The third section closes with a riot of accents, a furious assault on both the theme and the keyboard. (Take no prisoners)


Variation XXlX
With so much C major going on we may have barely registered the minor mode in the ninth variation. Here though we are in no doubt – every note speaks of melancholy. (Teardrops)


Variation XXX
The mood of sadness expands and is coupled with a sense of uneasiness. (Dark expectation)


Variation XXXl
The culmination of this minor key trajectory is a magnificent tribute to J. S. Bach and the baroque aria, a searching lament on a fantastical level of imagination and pianism. Chopin might even come to mind. (Beacon of sorrow)


Variation XXXll
Having out-Bached Bach, Beethoven now out-Handels Handel in a double Fugue of enormous power. (Rending the veil)


Variation XXXlll
After an inspired transition – obliterating, ethereal – this massive work closes with a Minuet, at once reminiscent of Haydn and of Beethoven's own final piano sonata. What might have been an anticlimax is here, in the hands of an absolute genius, the perfect endless ending. (Transcendence)


Perhaps a question remains: if, as Brendel suggests, the Variations Op.120 are the greatest piano work, why aren’t pianists lining up to play them and concert promoters asking to present them? Is it the length – over 50 minutes without a pause? Perhaps attention spans really are shrinking. Is it the difficulty? One of the most astounding features of the variations is the range of virtuoso pianism required, almost none of which can be found anywhere in the sonatas or concertos. Is it just the idea that ‘all late-Beethoven is difficult'? Maybe it is simply taste, for there are many pianists who only play the Appassionata sonata and perhaps a couple of others.


For we fanatics though, Beethoven's range and depth is unmatched. Every movement of every sonata has something extraordinary to convey, and sitting unassailably on the top of that great assemblage is the Diabelli Variations.


Michael Houstoun, May 2017







Michael Houstoun



Michael Houstoun is New Zealand’s most respected and acclaimed classical musician. His commitment to excellence and enthusiasm for the work of contemporary New Zealand composers has seen his path cross with Rattle's numerous times, and has resulted in many of our finest releases.

Michael became interested in the piano when he was a small child and began lessons at the age of 5, and by the age of 18 had won every major competition in New Zealand. He performed abroad for almost a decade before following his heart back home in 1981, where he has lived and worked ever since. He plays from a large repertoire that stretches from JS Bach to the present day, including 40 concertos and chamber music. A strong advocate of New Zealand music, works from Douglas Lilburn to John Psathas regularly feature in his programmes. During the 1990s he concentrated on the music of Beethoven, playing the complete sonatas in five cycles around NZ. He has recorded the cycle twice, most recently in 2013 with Rattle, for which he was awarded the 2014 Classical Album of the Year.

In late 2015 Michael recorded another cherished programme of Beethoven, the great Diabelli Variations. It is a stunning performance, beautifully captured by Rattle's in-house engineer Steve Garden, and produced with great concentration and perception by Kenneth Young. Michael, Steve, and Ken have enjoyed a very fruitful recording partnership since they first worked together on the award-winning INLAND in 2007. They picked up the Best Classical Album Award again in 2012 for LILBURN (a programme of Michael's favourite pieces selected from Douglas Lilburn's piano music), but their most ambitious and widely-acclaimed project was of course the monumental 14-CD set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas.

Visit Michael Houstoun's website here








In the same year that Michael Houstoun has performed Bach's entire Well-Tempered Clavier in concert as well as a complete run of Beethoven violin and piano sonatas with Bella Hristova, a new Rattle CD reminds us of the Herculean challenge the pianist set himself in 2012.


In October of that year, Houstoun marked his 60th birthday with a tour of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, a generous gift to his many ardent followers. These 56 minutes of merciless musical invention, bristling with ingenuity, were Beethoven's response to a trite little waltz by Anton Diabelli; a response in which barbed humour sits alongside flights of poetry and occasional lashings of furrowed-brow defiance.


Houstoun's sleeve notes catch the emotional and psychological richness of this score, weighing his words with the same finesse as he does notes on a keyboard. Setting off with a tribute to the "fabulous musician-pianist Alfred Brendel", he ends, very much in tune with our contentious times, by describing Beethoven as honouring Diabelli's theme while destroying it.


This performance, invested with an extraordinary presence and immediacy by Steve Garden's microphones, has the feeling of a journey, carefully mapped out, with Houstoun as a trustworthy and sometimes provocative guide and driver.


In seconds, you'll be swept up in the sheer swing of Diabelli's theme, riding aloft on Beethoven's playful crescendo trail; within a minute, in the mock pomposity of the first variation, we're warned, in words and playing, that Beethoven is on a mission and small talk is out of the question.


In the concert hall, this work runs without interruption and, even on disc, pausing is difficult when one is completely absorbed in the force of Houstoun's interpretation. Crucial choices in matters of touch, phrasing and, most importantly, characterisation, are perfectly judged, right through to a final minuet that, however detailed in its decorations, still remembers its dancing origins.


Rating: 5/5


William Dart, September 2017







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