As the 250th centenary of the birth of Beethoven approaches, it’s no surprise that the major publishers are issuing new and updated editions of his major piano solo works.
The monumental cycle of 35 Sonatas (the “New Testament” of the solo piano repertoire) are inevitably a centrepiece of the release schedules of several major publishers, but Beethoven’s other piano works mustn’t be overlooked.
Happy news, then: Henle Urtext have brought out an updated edition of Beethoven’s Variations for Piano in two volumes. The first volume [HN 1267] appeared a couple of years ago, but it’s the second [HN 1269], now available, that may prove the more irresistible.
Let’s find out why …
Beethoven’s 20 sets of Variations were composed over a period of more than four decades, a slightly longer time-frame than that of the better known Sonata cycle.
Covering such a span of years, they include his first published work, composed when he was just 12 (the Dressler Variations WoO 63), through the mid-period Variations Op.34 and 35 (the so-called Eroica Variations, based on the same theme as the finale to the Third Symphony), and culminating in the beloved Diabelli Variations Op.120 of 1823.
Few of the sets have opus numbers, but all were successful, the variation form a popular fashion in the Vienna of Beethoven’s day.
Most are based on themes by other composers, although some of the best known are based on Beethoven’s own original themes, including the 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80, a recital favourite that is also popular with diploma candidates.
For your enjoyment while you read on, here’s Daniel Barenboim’s recent recording, courtesy of Universal Music:
Not all Beethoven’s Variations are as technically demanding as the WoO 80 or mammoth Diabelli sets. Several of the earlier sets would be playable by late-intermediate to early-advanced players, but remain too-little performed (perhaps not least because they don’t fit the exam piece format which, sadly, has such hegemony in music education today).
As such, these works are ideal repertoire for further exploration by interested pianists and enquiring teachers, offering an abundance of superb music awaiting discovery.
The Two Volumes
Henle spread the sets of Variations evenly across their two volumes.
Volume One includes 11 sets from Beethoven’s youth in Bonn and his early years in Vienna up to 1799. All these were published in Vienna, but without opus numbers.
These earlier Variation sets are highly attractive works, with imaginative keyboard writing that anticipate his supreme mastery of the form.
As Henle explain,
“Beethoven mostly took his themes from arias or songs from stage works that were popular at the time. Besides offering simple figurations around the melodic lines, he also made more radical variations of his chosen material, pointing the way forward to his future ‘character variations’.”
Volume Two comprises the nine mature sets of Variations from Beethoven’s middle and late periods, thus including the more famous masterpieces.
Written between 1799 and 1823, here we find groundbreaking works such as the two sets of Variations on original themes opp. 34 and 35, which Beethoven stated in a letter to the publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel he felt were “crafted in an utterly new and different manner.”
This second volume also includes the aforementioned 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 and, the final jewel in the crown, the Diabelli Variations op. 120, rightly regarded as one of the greatest sets of Variations ever composed.
There’s also an Appendix featuring two further sets of Variations, the Nine Variations WoO 63 and Eight Variations Anh.10. These pieces are sometimes attributed to Beethoven (hence you may read elsewhere that Beethoven composed 22 sets of Variations), but their provenance cannot be firmly established.
Henle’s New Edition
Both volumes are newly edited by Felix Loy, who uses as his starting point the earlier Henle Edition prepared by Joseph Schmidt-Görg in the 1960’s as part of Henle’s then New Beethoven Edition, updating to include the revisions of his own 2019 Critical Commentary.
The first volume of Loy’s new edition includes fingering by Klaus Schilde, while volume two enjoys fingering by Ian Fountain; both have done a superb job in providing comfortable and memorable solutions to the more knotty problems that can sometimes trip players up.
These new volumes benefit as expected from Henle’s industry-leading music engraving, preferred by so many musicians for its supreme clarity. Even the busiest of pages here remain highly readable, every detail positioned with precision to ensure nothing is missed.
There is a Preface in German, English and French, as well as an extensive Comments section at the rear outlining the detailed source and textual information used in preparing the edition.
Several of the individual sets of Variations are also now available as separate publications, in some cases replacing the former editions that were available.
And I should also mention that for those using the Henle Library app on their tablet, both volumes of Beethoven’s Variations can be bought as digital scores.
In the 250th centenary year, Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas will be difficult to hide from (should any wish to!) but the Variations for Piano offer a welcome and immensely rewarding alternative for performance and exploration by pianists everywhere.
The first volume will appeal to those investing in a thorough exploration of Beethoven’s solo piano music, and offers pieces which surely deserve more attention, including by pianists not yet ready for the more famous landmark works.
The second volume will surely appeal to advanced pianists everywhere, offering the new benchmark edition of some of the finest treasures to be found in the classical piano repertoire. It’s an absolute must-have.
Henle are to be thanked for this updated, authoritative and practical edition. Felix Loy’s scholarship is undoubtedly of the highest order, while the fingering in these new volumes will also be of significant interest to performers at all levels.
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