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Wednesday 18th November – Saturday 21st November 2020

33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli op 120
Diabelli Variations

We are proud to offer the specially recorded performance of Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations made by Paul Lewis.  With thanks to the Tanglewood Festival, Wigmore Hall, and producer Darius Weinberg.

Before you watch Paul playing the Diabelli, you may like to watch what he has to say about the piece, in interview with
Professor Daniel Chua of Hong Kong University.  Click Here and wind the interview forward to about 31.00 min to start the section.

‘Lewis has the full measure of the work’s epic scale’ – BBC Music Magazine

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PROGRAMME NOTES – © C.N.Lane and A. J. Keith 2020 

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The list was indeed a strange one: Schubert; Hummel; Franz Mozart (son of the long dead, Wolfgang Amadeus); Archduke Rudolph; the 8 year old Franz Liszt. In the summer of 1819, each of these composers together with forty six others received an invitation from publisher, Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to contribute a single variation on a waltz theme, which he had composed, for publication in a collected edition. Diabelli’s marketing strategy was canny; he announced that part of the proceeds would be donated for the relief of Austrians widowed and orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars. Remarkably, every composer with one notable exception, delivered on the contract by the deadline. Refusing to contribute even one variation on a theme which he considered to be a worthless ‘cobbler’s patch’, Ludwig Van Beethoven eventually delivered, four years late, thirty-three. Described by Alfred Brendel as the ‘greatest of all piano works’, the bizarre chromaticism of the Diabelli Variations and the work’s wild, at times slightly crazy, contrasts of mood make for a bracing listening experience; more wild swimming than foam bath. As our soloist, Paul Lewis, says, Beethoven repeatedly ‘transports us to a sublime place only to take pleasure in immediately knocking it down.’

The great German critic, Hans Von Bülow, described the Diabelli Variations as ‘a microcosm of Beethoven‘s art’. Here, to a greater extent than in any other single work, the composer’s extraordinary ability to develop complex structures out of tiny fragments of melody or rhythm is manifest. Single grace notes from the theme are worked obsessively, as in Variation 9, whilst in Variation 13, the theme is stripped down to the absolute bare bones of its harmonic sub-structure. Humour abounds, but we are a world away from the affectionate, avuncular wit of Joseph Haydn; Beethoven’s jokes are barbed, at times even cruel, the composer encouraging us to laugh at rather than with the musical characters paraded before us. There are several allusions to other composers. Variation 22 quotes Leporello’s diatribe against the tedium of work (Act 1 of Don Giovanni) before parodying a five-finger piano exercise by Cramer (1771-1858) which would have been familiar to any pianists amongst the first listeners. The fugal style of Beethoven’s own favourite composer, Handel, dominates Variation 32, following on from an elaborate aria reminiscent of J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Such is the breadth of Beethoven’s creative vision that he seems to look forward as well as back; Variation 31 foreshadows the mature style of Frederic Chopin, who, in 1823, was a young boy in Warsaw just beginning his musical studies.

Paul Lewis considers that the work is best approached as forming three broad blocks or units. Variations 1-9 cohere as a single group whilst the contrasting and sometimes absurd character of the central variations eventually give way to a ‘finale’ comprising Variations 29-33. These concluding variations post-date the first sketches by nearly four years during which the composer had been preoccupied with the Missa Solemnis and the final great piano sonatas. The harsh jokes are jettisoned and the music ascends to an elevated plane of musical poetry befitting Beethoven’s last great work for the instrument of which he became, and has remained, the supreme master.

(Duration: approx. 58 minutes)

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PAUL LEWIS – © D Halpin

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There’s no doubting the profound musicality and sheer technical accomplishment of Paul Lewis’ playing, which is why he justifiably enjoys the accolade of being internationally regarded as one of the leading classical pianists of his generation.

Although there were no musicians in his family background, Paul showed sufficient musical potential, aged 14, to gain a place at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, where his piano studies blossomed. His main teacher there was Ryszard Bakst. Subsequently, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he was taught by Joan Havilland. Privately, Alfred Brendel completed his apprenticeship.

Paul Lewis’ first major international achievement, aged 22, was winning second prize at the 1994 World Piano Competition in London. The same year he also won the Dudley Piano Competition. Two years earlier, he achieved first prize in the Royal Overseas League Piano Competition.

His website ( rightly draws attention to the unanimous critical and public acclaim his cycles of core piano works by Beethoven and Schubert have received. These have consolidated his reputation as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the central European classical repertoire.

So, too, has his multi-award winning discography for Harmonia Mundi, which includes the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, concertos, and the Diabelli Variations, Liszt’s B minor sonata, all of Schubert’s major piano works from the last six years of his life, comprising as well the three song cycles with tenor Mark Padmore, solo works by Schumann and Mussorgsky, and the Brahms D minor piano concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding. More recent recordings include the start of a multi-CD series of Haydn sonatas and Beethoven’s Bagatelles. There are plans to record works by Bach.

Public recognition has included the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year, two Edison awards, three Gramophone awards, the Diapason D’or de l’Annee, the Preis Der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, the Premio Internazionale Accademia Musicale Chigiana, and the South Bank Show Classical Music award.

Paul also holds honorary degrees from Liverpool, Edge Hill, and Southampton Universities, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Paul Lewis regularly works as soloist with the world’s great orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, NHK Symphony, New York Philharmonic, LA Philharmonic, and the Royal Concertgebouw, Cleveland, Tonhalle Zurich, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Philharmonia, and Mahler Chamber Orchestras.

His recital career takes him to venues such as London’s Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Berlin Philharmonie and Konzerthaus.

He is also a frequent guest at the some of the world’s most prestigious festivals, including Tanglewood, Ravinia, Schubertiade, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Lucerne, and the BBC Proms where in 2010 he became the first person to play a complete Beethoven piano concerto cycle in a single season.

In addition, Paul Lewis is Co-Artistic Director of Midsummer Music, an annual chamber music festival held in Buckinghamshire which he founded, with his wife Bjørg Lewis, in 2009. In 2018, He was Co-Artistic Director of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Paul revealed that his musical guilty pleasure was the 1968 single ‘Paralyzed’ by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy

(listen to it here:

Other fascinating revelations can be read about on Lewis’s Facebook page:

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Paul’s superb recording of the work is one of the best available: Harmonia Mundi 902071 at full price, which was designated Disc of the Month in the BBC Music Magazine July 2011 when it first came out.  As a budget alternative, there is a very good recording on Naxos 8571407 by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret.

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