Poster pianist Shai wosner
Pianist Shai Wosner presents his latest recording featuring Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Diabelli Variations'
Marco Borggreve
New Classical Tracks®

Pianist Shai Wosner explores Beethoven's 'Diabelli Variations' on new recording

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Shai Wosner
New Classical Tracks - Shai Wosner
New Classical Tracks - November 8, 2023

Shai Wosner – Beethoven Diabelli Variations (Onyx Classics)

“He was asked to provide one variation. And at first, according to the legend, he dismissed the whole project and decided, ‘This is beneath me. I don't need this, and I don't have time for this.’ I never quite bought that,” pianist Shai Wosner says about Ludwig van Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, which are featured on his latest release.

Anton Diabelli was a publisher and a composer. He had the idea of commissioning several composers each to write one variation on his little waltz. He would then publish them as a collection.

Wosner says Beethoven looked at this basic waltz and, in true Beethoven style, transformed it into something magnificent.

“I'm convinced that he saw this as a way to channel the idea that in life,” the Israeli-born American pianist says. “It doesn’t matter what you start with, but rather what you do with it, what you do with yourself, what you do with your place in the world. I really think that by extension, this is the source of the idealism in Beethoven's music.

“This piece, more than any other piece of Beethoven's, is about that idea. In other pieces, the impulse comes from him. He has the initial idea, his own motif. In this case, it's a rare example where he's getting something from someone else. And the impetus for writing the piece doesn't come from him.

“The tradition of writing a set of variations usually leaves the theme in the center. Here we have something profoundly different. The theme is only a point of departure. You hear it once and it's very short, shockingly short. And already from the first variation, Beethoven is kind of stomping on it and casting it aside, because the very first variation is a sort of march.

“And it's clear that Beethoven is aiming for us to feel like each variation is completely different from the last. It’s like he’s asking, ‘You didn't think we could end up here, did you? Starting with that little waltz? How about this?’ And that's really the point of of the whole thing. It's a series of miniatures, if you will. A whole journey.”

What is the journey he's creating?

I would say the first 13 variations, which are a big chunk of the piece, are in the tongue-in-cheek vein. The mindset is a little bit closer to the waltz, which is really quite lively and doesn't take itself too seriously.

“And then there's a turning point because there is Variation 14, which is very slow and much longer than any of the others that preceded it. It's like a reminder. You forgot this is late Beethoven; this is philosophical stuff. And it's like a meditation. Time comes to a complete standstill. And then after that the piece is never quite the same anymore. It gets much more ambitious after that.

“And all of a sudden you have Variations 29, 30 and 31. Those three are the most touching and most personal confession that you can imagine. And especially Variation 31 is probably the closest we can ever get to being in the room with him as he's improvising.

“It's really unbelievable. It's like it’s just you and the music — just you and Beethoven's endless imagination.”

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Shai Wosner – Beethoven Diabelli Variations (Amazon)

Shai Wosner – Beethoven Diabelli Variations (Onyx Classics)

Shai Wosner (official site)

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