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Diane Walsh, pianist: Journal

Goodbye to Summer, Hello to Beethoven - September 14, 2016

What a rich summer it has been! In June I travelled to Maryland and performed at Chesapeake Music. I may have missed a few summers since their first season in 1985, but not many. The highlight for me was performing Faure’s C minor Quartet with my colleagues in La Fenice, working from a score annotated by a pianist who had studied it with Faure. After the festival, I flew from Dulles direct to Korea, arriving in time to hear the Seoul debut of a former student of mine, MinJee Lee. She offered Beethoven’s formidable masterpiece, the Diabelli Variations, and played it flawlessly, along with works by Bach and Rautavaara, and I was a proud teacher. I spent the following week visiting with her and her husband and exploring Seoul with their guidance. 

Beethoven was one of the themes of my summer: I played his Clarinet Trio at two festivals, and am now practicing the Sonata Op. 109 for upcoming recitals. I will also be reprising a scene from Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations” with Zach Grenier, the actor who played Beethoven in the Broadway production, for a gala evening in New York to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Tectonic Theater Project. In the scene, Zach “creates” the penultimate variation while I play it, and it is so dramatic it almost always stops the show.  Other hits from Tectonic’s many successes will be performed, Jane Fonda will be the host, and it promises to be an enjoyable evening and a great reunion for us all. Details will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to playing with my friends in La Fenice this weekend in Boston—click here for a preview: http://winsormusic.org/calendar/2016/9/18/chamber-series-i-la-fenice

Bach Suites - May 9, 2015

Many people have urged me to make a Bach recording, after hearing me playing Bach in concert. An album which I've thought about for years has finally become a reality this month. It includes the French Suite in G major, the Partita in D major and the English Suite in D minor. Recorded in New York in late 2013, it is now available as a digital download from Amazon and iTunes and as a CD from CD Baby.

I am increasingly drawn to return to pieces I learned when I was studying with Irwin Freundlich at Juilliard. When I began my lessons with him at age twelve, he assigned me a new Bach Prelude and Fugue almost every week. I progressed to the French Suite in G major at thirteen and at fourteen I tackled the English Suite in D minor. A year later, at fifteen, I played the English Suite in the finals of the International Bach Competition in Washington, D.C.  I won second prize, even though I was two years under the age limit and was competing with special permission. Mr. Freundlich had sent me "just for the experience" and I remember how excited I was to come home with my first award. (Another remembered detail: the stage was divided by a screen so that the judges and the competitors could not see each other, but the audience could see both. I believe the all-male jury was quite surprised to see the three female winners, when the votes were counted and the results were announced.)

For decades since these early experiences, I have continued to study and perform Bach. His music is known for its intellectual rigor and the intricacy of its counterpoint, but what has always attracted me is the wide range of character and human feeling he summons in these courtly dances, from simple contentment and joy to wistfulness and deepest tragedy. This expressivity I find as fresh and immediate as ever, in Bach's 330th birthday year.

2015 Begins - January 4, 2015

Happy New Year to all! I have just hit the one-year mark of living here in Portland, and feel very lucky to be here. My Steinway sounds beautiful in the front parlor of our house, and my writing desk looks out on the roofs and trees of our quiet East End neighborhood. I take frequent walks along the Eastern Promenade, which is a block away; the park overlooks Casco Bay and its numerous islands.

I'm still musing, dreaming, researching and writing about the life of Fanny Hensel. I am also learning more of her music, and look forward to performing her piano trio later on this Spring.

Even though I've retired from my teaching position at Mannes, I'm teaching a couple of students by Skype-- one as far away as Kurdistan in Iraq! Chopin is even more of a universal language than I would have believed.

Technology keeps me in touch not only with students but with distant musical events, such as the recent Metropolitan Opera live HD broadcast, in a movie theater in S. Portland, of a wonderful performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The plot, which combines a music competition with the search for love, is always deeply touching and the cast, the orchestra and James Levine all sounded superb. Next month, I hope to attend another Met broadcast...in Buenos Aires.

A New Year, A New City - January 11, 2014

Greetings from Portland, Maine! My husband and I have just arrived here, appropriately on New Year's Day, in search of a calmer environment for the contemplative work of being a pianist and a writer. Portland is small, compared to New York City, but it has many alluring features: we were drawn by cobblestoned streets, the waterfront, parks and bike paths, and the active cultural scene: symphony, ballet, theater, chamber music, and a beautiful art museum and public library. We've gotten our library cards and YMCA memberships, and visited the winter farmer's market. After we're more settled, I will resume some long-range projects, including my idea for a novel about Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Felix's older sister. At Mannes I recently taught a course about the music of both siblings, and I was inspired to see how many of the students came to share my enthusiasm, and even love, for Fanny and her music.

Branching Out - May 19, 2013

It's been a while since I've posted, and a whole concert season (and an entire academic year) has flown by. I've traveled to Denmark, Maryland, North Carolina, Vermont, Cape Cod, upstate New York, and Quebec to play, and now I'm poised to begin another summer music festival season.

I also have a new project I'd like to share with you. I'm writing a novel. . . but more about that when I'm further along! It is based on a 19th-century musical figure, and that's all I'll say for now.

Diabelli, complete again - June 5, 2012

This week I'm taking part in the Mannes Beethoven Institute, teaching his piano sonatas by day and performing his variations by night: Thursday night, June 7, when I'll play all thirty-three of Beethoven's spectacular variations on Diabelli's little waltz tune. (Concert details on the Calendar page.) It's been two years since I performed the complete set, and it has been fun to rework the piece and try to put to the side for now the many theatrical associations I have with most of the variations. In addition, it's good to restore the missing nine variations which are not used in Moises Kaufman's play. I still don't feel any staleness while playing the set--proof of how enduring a great masterpiece like Beethoven's Op. 120 really is, and how satisfying the evolvement of one's feeling for it over time.

 

Thank you, Nodame Cantabile - February 27, 2012

A few years ago I began getting enigmatic comments at YouTube, from viewers who watched my video of the first movement of Schubert's Sonata in A minor.  (Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-1j7QxZ6Fc)

The comments all said something like "I LOVE Nodame Cantabile!!!!"  After this happened a few times, I Googled "Nodame Cantabile" and discovered that it was an immensely popular Japanese manga about a young female pianist. (The story has also been made into animated and live action TV series, live action movies, plus spin-off soundtrack albums and video games.) At a crucial moment in the story, Nodame plays this Schubert movement with a great deal of emotion. Apparently, fans of the series then search for YouTube versions of this piece-- which has led to my video being viewed over 185,000 times! It's heartening to me that a 187-year old classical piece has gotten such pop-culture attention... and that both the fictional pianist and the real manga artist, Tomoko Ninomiya, are women. 

Beethoven's Spirit - July 31, 2011

In 2009, during the Broadway run of 33 Variations, Moises Kaufman's play about Beethoven’s obsession with his “Diabelli Variations,” Dr. Michael Ladenburger, director of the composer’s archive in Bonn and the model for a character in the play, came backstage one evening to greet the cast. When it became clear that my travels this year would bring me to Bonn, I made a date to visit the archive, on July 18.

Beethoven-Haus, where the composer was born in the attic in 1770, is a typically baroque yellow structure at Bonngasse 20, in the center of the city; the building and the one next door form a commemorative museum dedicated to the composer’s life and works.  Since I was a child and played “Für Elise,” I have performed many of Beethoven’s works, from the bagatelles and sonatas to his Fourth Concerto and the “Diabelli.” I feel as if I am entering a chapel.

Michael himself greets me. He is soft-spoken and bookish, and after a warm welcome he turns me over to a colleague.  In a room full of computers, she explains that the online archive here, unlike on your screen at home, offers audio music clips that are full-length rather than short samples, and high-definition close-ups of Beethoven’s original manuscripts.

At our next stop, the library, another staff member brings out several facsimile editions, including a newly-published “Diabelli Variations” in a handsome, two-volume boxed set.  After studying them for a while, I am escorted downstairs into a small movie theater with no seats to see Fidelio 21st Century, a 20-minute interactive 3D presentation of five scenes from Beethoven’s only opera. 

The characters Florestan, Leonore, Rocco and Don Pizarro are represented by moving particles outlining abstract shapes–a spiral, a blue wall, a red ball and white bars.  Controls allow viewers to move the shapes around to the music, performed by four singers and the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. I find this a bit jejune, but am nonetheless touched, especially when Leonore and Florestan’s shapes become intertwined at the end and cannot be separated, as the lovers sing “O namenlose Freude” (“Oh, nameless joy”).

Michael reappears at this point and takes me downstairs to the chamber music hall, which opened in 1989. It is a gem, a steeply raked, wood-paneled amphitheater with a 9-foot Steinway concert grand at the center begging to be played. Michael says, Go ahead. I play some Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert, after which he confesses that, though Beethoven is his scholarly passion, his favorite composer is Schubert. He also tantalizes me by revealing that I had been playing right above the vault that holds the original Beethoven manuscripts.

At lunch, he explains that he tells most scholars to use the online images for research. The original pages were side-lit when scanned, so that many details on the paper–false starts, erasures, faint pencil marks, ink blots– are, when magnified on the screen, much more easily discerned and interpreted. This was certainly the case when I viewed the “Diabelli” originals in the computer room, but I try to hide my disappointment as I fear there will be no visit to the inner sanctum.

At 3 P.M., my friend Nicola calls my cell phone to say that, as arranged, she will be by in fifteen minutes to drive me to an apartment where I can practice for a couple of hours. When Michael hears “fifteen minutes” he looks dismayed.  “I didn’t know you had an appointment,” he says, as if I had just slammed down the key cover in the middle of the “Appassionata.” “I was just going to practice,” I say, and quickly call back Nicola to cancel. As soon as I hang up, I find that we are standing directly outside the thick, black steel door of the vault. “Put your jacket on, it’s cool inside,” Michael says. He unlocks the door and we step inside. He gestures at one shelf and says “There is the ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ there is Op. 111, and the Missa Solemnis . . . .”

The first thing he brings to me is the “Diabelli Variations” autograph, encased in a royal-blue velvet binding, the pages inside darkened with age. It is a jewel of the collection, purchased from its longtime private owner only two years ago, after an intense five-year fund-raising effort that featured many benefit concerts by leading musicians. The Beethoven-Haus website calls the acquisition "the most important addition within the last 99 years." Michael discreetly does not reveal who had owned it, or the purchase price.  

Having looked at the digital version only a couple of hours before, many of the images are already familiar: the changes in spacing, from airy and wide open (Var. 20) to crowded and spidery (Var. 27); a blot where Beethoven overturned his ink bottle onto the page; the furious crossings-out in what was supposed to be a fair copy. Beethoven had begun to use it as a sketchbook towards the end, then realized what he was writing in.

Out comes the Wittgenstein Sketchbook, which contains Beethoven’s first drafts of the “Diabelli” and the Missa Solemnis, which he was working on simultaneously in the 1820’s. The mottled red cardboard cover is also familiar; I’ve seen the sketchbook stage prop fought over night after night by the actors playing Anton Diabelli and Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary.

Michael is reverential as he shows me more of the vault’s many treasures: a small oil painting of his hands, done at his deathbed by Josef Danhauser; an engraving of the composer that Beethoven particularly liked and autographed to a friend; a card with a lock of his auburn hair.

I ask to see Op. 111 since I’m studying it now. Michael takes out the autograph of the first movement and allows me to read through the piece as he gingerly turns the pages by lifting each one with a small note card. I listen to the music in my head as I follow this score, imagining Beethoven setting down these miraculous notes. The handwriting is vigorous throughout, evincing his determination to finish this final sonata as he struggled against illness and despair.

After Michael points me towards the permanent and special exhibits upstairs in the museum, which include pianos and string instruments owned by Beethoven, his writing desk and ear trumpets, I assume the tour is finished. It has lasted over six hours, more than I ever expected, and I am enormously grateful. As I begin saying goodbye and my thanks, Michael surprises me. 

He asks if I would like to play a 1824 fortepiano, from the period of the “Diabelli” and four Schubert sonatas I had recently recorded. He takes me to a small recital hall with two dovetailed fortepianos behind a velvet rope. He removes the rope and the signs saying “Do Not Touch,” then opens the lid of the Graf piano. I play portions of Schubert’s Sonatas in A-minor and B-flat, his Impromptu in G-flat, Beethoven’s Op. 78 and “Diabelli” theme, and Mozart’s Turkish Rondo. The piano is in superb condition inside and out, a 187-year-old wonder with a rich tone ranging from robust to subtle.

I had never played an instrument with five foot pedals, instead of the three I am used to.  From the front row Michael kibitzes gently, suggesting I experiment with the different colors the pedals produce: here a reedy bassoon effect for the bass line, there a drum and cymbal effect for the Turkish march. A few people wander in to listen as I revel in this unexpected bonus. O namenlose Freude!

Back to the piano - June 9, 2011

Vienna seems the place to get back to a practice routine. It began last week at Klavierhaus A. Foerstl, a small piano store on Bellaria Street, across the street from the Museum of Natural History of Vienna and just down the block from the Volkstheater.  After some time spent getting reacquainted with the feel of my fingers on a keyboard, I could go to Cafe Raimund around the corner for a sustaining apfelstrudel and some delicious coffee.

On Vacation - April 20, 2011

After seven weeks of performing every night except Monday, and twice on Saturday and Sunday, I needed a good long break.  So this post is from Hoi An Riverside Resort in Vietnam, where I spent the morning looking at the waves roll in from the South China Sea. It is the third stop in a multi-stop tour of Asia and Europe that my husband and I have undertaken. (The first two stops were Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.)  Future stops will include Siem Reap in Cambodia, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Venice, Vienna, and further points west until we reach London, from where we fly home on August 16th. By the time we get to Vienna, I'll be ready to start practicing again!

Opening Night - February 11, 2011

33 Variations was launched before a glittering crowd last Wednesday. Cher, Anjelica Huston, Colin Farrell, Christian Slater, Ben Vereen... all came to see Jane Fonda's portrayal of a dying musicologist, and they got to hear late Beethoven performed on a beautiful Steinway to boot. 

I think I've never seen a better performance from all the actors-- the evening was super-charged, and the audience rewarded us with a huge ovation. Jane Fonda was incandescent and Zach Grenier was deeply touching as he hit every emotional tone of Beethoven's volatile personality.  Even after seeing the show hundreds of times from my piano platform stage right, I am still hooked! 

Los Angeles - January 10, 2011

I'm here for the next two months, rehearsing and performing in the upcoming production of "33 Variations" at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center.  Jane Fonda and most of the Broadway cast remain, with Greg Keller and Grant James Varjas the two new actors in the cast (although some of you may remember that Greg Keller was the original Nurse Mike in the Arena Stage production.) The first week of rehearsal has just concluded, and all the elements of music and text are beginning to come together again smoothly.  The piece is back in my fingers, and the actors seem happy to be singing a few phrases from the "Missa Solemnis" in four-part harmony and timing some of their scenes with various selections from the Diabelli Variations.  Zach Grenier (Beethoven) nailed his big Fugue speech the very first time we ran through it, after all these months since we did it in New York.  We got a peek at the theater last week, and I was happy to try the piano (a beautiful Steinway B) and see where it will be placed. 

Meanwhile I am acclimating myself to a very different city.  As a New Yorker and non-car-owner of long standing, it took me a few days before I had the courage to drive on the freeways, but I'm starting to find my way around. As long as I get to the theater on time, I'll be fine!

New Schubert CD - December 1, 2010

I'm happy to announce that the second installment of my Schubert Sonata project has been released.  (There are favorable reviews by the New York Times and Cleveland.com posted on the Reviews page.) The CD contains the great Sonata in B-flat, D. 960 (Op. Posth.) and the Sonata in A minor, D. 784 (Op. 143), and can be purchased at Amazon, CD Baby, or directly from the label, Jonathan Digital.  It is also downloadable at iTunes. 

On a recent trip to Vienna I visited both the apartment where Schubert was born and the one in which he died. The two tiny rooms and open hearth near the front door for cooking and heating are mute testimony to the grim poverty of his origins. A mere thirty-one years later, the composer died in his older brother Ferdinand’s somewhat larger apartment, where a narrow, closet-like space served as bedroom and studio during Schubert’s last months. A small display case contains his signature glasses, the oval metal-rimmed spectacles so familiar from most of his portraits, one of which hangs nearby. I found the scene painful to contemplate, especially the document listing his estate: ". . . 4 shirts, 9 cravats and pocket handkerchiefs, 13 pairs of socks, 1 towel, 1 sheet, 1 mattress . . . a quantity of old music . . . ." These homely details make Schubert more immediate, in the same way that seeing the dry scratch marks on the paper of one of his manuscripts brought him to life in my imagination. He made corrections by using a dry pen nib to scrape away the ink and some of the underlying paper, and I saw these marks at the Morgan Library in New York when I held his score in my hands. This sad history often summons dark metaphors when I play Schubert’s music. The stark opening of Schubert’s A minor Sonata, for example—an un-harmonized melody in half notes—seems to create a barren landscape, a terrain also delineated in many of his most despairing songs. The mood throughout the work is mostly tragic, but there are a few moments of consolation, in particular in the last movement, where the closing theme is a lullaby-like melody accompanied by a rocking motion in the bass.

My fascination with Schubert and his music began with a recording of his Unfinished Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, which I listened to again and again when I was about seven. By the time I was a teenager I had played a few of the Ländler and other simple pieces, but the first major Schubert piece I tackled, at summer music camp, was not a solo piece but the Trio in E-flat major. The next summer I played the other one, in B-flat major, and struggling with these works served as a valuable introduction to Schubert’s mature style. The B-flat Sonata bears some resemblances to the Trio that shares its tonality. At turns expansive, lyrical, noble and playful, both are masterpieces. The Sonata's Rondo finale also has the same sunny élan as the final movement of Schubert’s much-loved “Trout” Quintet for piano and strings, and seems to recall happier times, when he roamed the countryside with his friends. The sonata was completed sometime between March and September, 1828. Schubert died two months later, from typhoid fever and complications of syphilis. He did not leave "a quantity of old music," but a miraculous outpouring of notes so transcendent that they banish with their beauty the cruel deprivations of his short life.

Mozart in Costume - March 3, 2010

I've finally had something close to the full 18th-century experience of performing Mozart in authentic dress. It wasn't on a fortepiano, we didn't play at a lower pitch, and (thank goodness) I didn't have to wear a corset-- but I did wear an elaborate costume that weighed about 10 pounds, made of a lovely red brocade with a cream-colored lace-trimmed underskirt, opaque white stockings, buckles on my shoes, and a white powdered wig, complete with pigtail and topknot. The rest of the orchestra (the musicians of the Lancaster Symphony in Lancaster, PA) and the conductor (Stephen Gunzenhauser) were also in costume and wigs, but I was the only one in a woman's costume; the entire orchestra, including the 20 or so women, were all dressed as men, in knee pants and long satin jackets of various colors. The effect, in the handsomely restored 150-year-old Fulton Opera House, was quite painterly as the original red velvet curtain went up for an all-Mozart concert. My contribution was the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467, the "Elvira Madigan," and though the dress wasn't really that comfortable and the wig was itchy and distracting, it was worth it for the glowing reactions from audience members afterwards, who (besides loving music) are eager for visual beauty and theatricality-- as are we all.

A New Season - October 5, 2009

After 113 performances of just one piece (Beethoven's Diabelli Variations) on the Broadway stage last spring, in "33 Variations," I had to get quickly accustomed to playing many different pieces throughout the summer! Some of the highlights: performing Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival in Easton, Maryland, with Tara Helen O'Connor, flute and Daniel Phillips, violin; playing Haydn, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn trios with Roberta Cooper and Eugene Drucker at PS21 in Chatham NY, and working with tenor William Hite in songs by Mendelssohn and Bach at Music from Salem in Cambridge, NY. This last was a wonderful reunion with old friends, both on stage and in the audience, since I hadn't been back to Salem in the summertime for quite a few years.

Now the new season is upon us. For me it holds: recitals at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and Mannes College in New York; Walsh-Drucker-Cooper Trio performances at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Friends of Music in New Orleans, and a tour of Denmark; and other chamber music engagements in Chicago and New York City. This means I have another long list of repertoire sitting on my piano, with dates of when they must be ready. One piece I'm particularly glad to get back to is Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, which I've loved ever since I first began learning it when I was 14... especially the "Forlane," whose astringent harmonies are still thrilling to me. Even before I knew that Ravel had orchestrated it, I found in it a treasury of orchestral sounds on the piano.

Teachers - July 28, 2009

My new manager, Tom Parker, asked me the other day who my teachers had been, since a concert presenter wanted to know. I told him that my major teacher had been Irwin Freundlich (1908-1977) with whom I worked for nine years at Juilliard, and I also studied for one year with Richard Goode at Mannes.

I began thinking about my years at Juilliard and I remember a somewhat competitive "piano-lineage" game we pianists used to play. The game was won if, when we went back enough generations, we could link ourselves to Beethoven, like so: Irwin Freundlich studied with James Friskin, who studied with Eduard Dannreuther, who studied with Ignaz Moscheles, who studied with Beethoven. His wife, Lillian Freundlich, was also a fine pianist and teacher, and here is her lineage: Alexander Siloti-Franz Liszt-Carl Czerny- Beethoven. Both these heritage chains are a bit unusual, because many pianists who trace their musical patrimony back to Beethoven do it by way of Theodor Leschetizky, a student of Czerny's. For example, here is Richard Goode's line through just one of his teachers: Mieczslaw Horszowski-Theodor Leschetizky-Carl Czerny. . . Beethoven.

After the show - July 20, 2009

It's now mid-July. "33 Variations" closed at the end of May, the summer festival season began in early June, and my performing life now has a whole new rhythm. After playing the same piece by Beethoven every night except Monday for four months, it was quite a shock to suddenly have to perform twenty-three different pieces in two weeks at the Chesapeake Chamber Music festival! But I enjoyed it greatly (especially the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5), and now I am enjoying a little down time to recover from my labors.

The Bells of St. Malachy's - March 5, 2009

Across the street from my 5th floor dressing room at the O'Neill Theater on W. 49th Street there is the church of St. Malachy. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the church carillon plays "No Business Like Show Business" right before the matinee and again before the evening performance. I can also hear the rustle and buzz of conversation from audience members below my window, too, as they are filing in for the performance, and then over the intercom as they are settling into their seats. It's a great way to get ready to perform.

On Broadway - February 13, 2009

"It's Saturday Night on Broadway!" An excited voice shouted this over the intercom last Saturday, which boomed into my dressing room at the half-hour call at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on W. 49th Street. This giddy announcement is a tradition on Broadway, and it set a festive atmosphere for our final dress rehearsal. A beautiful Steinway piano, gorgeously lit by David Lander, awaited me in the niche built for it to the left of the stage. After a month of long hours of rehearsal, we were finally to have an audience.

Since then, there have been four preview performances, and as I write this, the fifth is about to go on. Audiences have been very responsive and friends who have seen it are overwhelmed by the theatrical blending of music, drama, humor and passion.

Thoughts on the Diabelli Variations - October 1, 2008

Three years ago I heard from a colleague that a theater group was looking for a pianist who played Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. I had just performed them a few months earlier, so I phoned the offices of the Tectonic Theater Company in New York City, where I live. My call soon led to an audition, on a dubious upright piano in a rehearsal studio near Times Square. That was my first meeting with Moisés Kaufman, the brilliant playwright and director (I Am My Own Wife, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project), and my first exposure to his obsession with Beethoven's extraordinary work, which grips the imagination as few piano pieces do. On that occasion, I played about the first third of the piece, then skipped to the fugue and the finale, and could see instantly that Moises was as enthralled as I was by the music. When I learned that his play was about Katherine, a Beethoven scholar who travels to Bonn to study the sketchbooks of the Diabelli Variations in the Beethoven Archive there, I felt a shiver of recognition: coincidentally, I had once applied for a fellowship in Germany to do just that.

My own fascination with the Diabelli, dating from my student years, has only deepened as I worked with Moises and talented actors as the play emerged from improvisation, overnight rewrites and many impassioned discussions exploring the music's enriched meaning in a theatrical context.
The Diabelli has always intrigued me more than any other set of variations; even the august "Goldberg" has not drawn me as much as this "gigantic cycle of bagatelles," as the Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon called them. These pieces, many of them only a minute or less in length, show the full range of Beethoven's difficult and complex character: his rough humor, his impatience, his rages and abrupt mood changes, his delight in parody and practical jokes, his gift for the simple, the pastoral, and the sublime.

The variations show the evolution of Beethoven's thoughts about Anton Diabelli's simple two-part waltz, which he at first found almost ludicrously simple-minded and then, as the implications of its potential for variation grew on him, became an obsession. The genius outpouring that resulted wrings every bit of utility and meaning out of this scrap of theme; even the opening grace note earns several of its own variations.

The theme is not so much a waltz as it is a ländler-like dance. The melody, a tuba-like, oom-pah tune, is presented in the bass, and is accompanied by unpromising repeated chords in the right hand. These repetitions re-emerge later, transposed to the bass (Nos. 2, 14, 21) or kept in the treble (Nos. 10, 25) and eventually, in No. 32, they form one of the themes of the climatic triple fugue. After the theme's midpoint, the structure of the first 16 bars is repeated almost verbatim, in the dominant key, and ends with a resounding V-I cadence-- in all, a symmetrical, conventional structure, which Beethoven explodes immediately.
The sketchbooks show that the first variation to be written was No. 3, a little miracle of questioning lyricism, with an odd breaking-off in the second part, as if the composer were lost in thought; meanwhile, the left hand meanders on the first three notes of the theme. But before No. 3, we are given No. 1, which changes the theme's ¾ waltz meter to a martial 4/4, and No. 2, which gently vamps with alternating hands as Beethoven begins to explore other harmonic universes to use in the second part. There are corresponding places in almost all the variations where Beethoven confounds our expectations of a conventional modulation, and the keys he later hints at momentarily are as far from C major as can be: D minor, E minor, D-flat major, F minor, F-sharp minor and B-flat minor. My favorite destabilizing harmonic shock occurs in No. 17, where in the second half the harmony veers wildly into B minor, as if the earth had suddenly left its axis, and then as suddenly resumes its proper rotation around the dominant and tonic of C major.

The variations give us humor: the "knock-knock, who's there?" joke of No. 13; grotesquerie and parody: Nos. 21, 23, 27, 28; virtuosity: Nos. 16, 17, 21; solemnity: Nos. 20, 24; innocence and playfulness : Nos. 18, 19, 25. There is tragedy, too, in Nos. 29, 30 and 31, C-minor variations that sink from melancholy to florid despair. But the gloom is quickly banished by the energy and optimism of the No. 32 , a lengthy and powerful triple fugue in the new key of E-flat. Beethoven transforms the repeated-note accompaniment figure from the waltz into his first theme and creates a simple stepping-down-by-thirds motive for his second theme. The third theme, which runs along in rapid 16th notes, is only introduced in the last third of the variation.

The final variation, No. 33, has the feeling of a coda, and is also one of the longest variations. The tension and drama of the three minor-key variations and the following fugue need time to wind down, and the decision to end the work, not with bombast, but with a graceful dance, leaves a final impression of Beethoven deep in thought. The spinning out of right-hand figuration is like the finale, also in C major, of Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111, completed the same year. Diabelli's waltz has been transformed, after a demanding but exhilarating journey of 55 minutes, into an ethereal minuet.

Beginning my Schubert journey - September 21, 2008

I've begun my multi-year journey of recording the eleven mature sonatas of Schubert, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters (with its fabled acoustics) on a splendid Steinway piano and with my favorite producer, Judith Sherman. Volume One is now available; Volume Two is also completed and will come out next year. Here are my program notes for the first volume:

Schubert had a gift for friendship. Since he was often penniless, he was fortunate to have generous friends who came through for him, with money to pay café bills, offers to share apartments or invitations to the countryside. In May of 1825 he had the use of Wilhelm August Rieder's piano a few streets away in Vienna. By pre-arranged signal, if the curtains of the piano room were open, Schubert was welcome to come in to compose. During this month he began work on the Sonata in A minor.

The opening bars are strangely tentative, almost mysterious, the music rising in the treble like a question, then answered sternly in the bass. The question is stated again, a step higher, and the answer is now extended to become a yearning question of its own. After this halting introduction, the motor rhythm which will form the motivic spine of the movement is finally introduced in forte, a martial rat-a-tat-tat. The character of this severe rhythmic figure is quickly transformed into something lighter, almost dance-like, when it is presented in C major a few moments later. Schubert's development technique is often simply to repeat themes in different keys so that we may enjoy how they sound transformed by different tone colors. With a simple modulation from minor to major or with an unexpected harmonic shift, Schubert creates lovely gradations of light and dark, creating a stab of gloom in sunlight, or a flash of joy in sadness. The sonata has a tight scheme that owes much to Beethoven with its short rhythmic figures. The development is economical and includes a section in which the main theme is stated in the left hand as the right hand creates a shimmer of harmony above it. There are also several dramatic pauses during this movement which give some surcease from the relentlessly driving rhythms.

The second movement, in 3/8 meter, is a lyrical set of five variations on a theme in C major. The first two variations gradually pick up speed, as eighth notes become 16ths and the 16ths become 32nds, but the third variation is a Minore in C minor which returns to a slower motion with the addition of dotted rhythms. Schubert then introduces a variation in A-flat major, which explores 32nd sextuplets. After modulating back to C major, the sextuplets become triplets that create a gently pulsating variant of the theme and leads us to a short coda in the same rhythm.

A nervously darting scherzo is next, with syncopated accents and sudden dynamic changes from soft to loud: more Beethoven-like touches. The brief trio introduces a lovely, rocking motion and some surprising modulations, before the opening section is reprised.

The Rondo finale has as its recurring theme an obsessive perpetual motion figure in the right hand, which only suggests a melody within its contours rather than stating one. The contrasting sections are similarly austere, with the exception of the brief foray into A major, when the mood softens and the right hand plays a singing melody in octaves. The sonata ends with a coda in which a breathless accelerando rushes to an uncompromising conclusion—and no last-minute major chord comes as a reprieve from A Minor's grim resolve.

Schubert D major, Op. 53, D. 850 (1825)

The D major Sonata is often known as the "Gasteiner" since it was composed during a stay in the spa town of Bad Gastein in the summer of 1825. This time was an uncommonly happy and productive one for Schubert, since he was also enjoying a reprieve from the bad health that plagued him throughout most of his adulthood. Since May, Schubert had been traveling in the countryside with his friend, the baritone Johann Michael Vogl (who probably paid most of the expenses), and they arrived in Gastein on August 10. During this visit Schubert also began work on the C major "Great" Symphony, D. 944.

Joyous and rambunctious, the first movement seems to exult in its own virtuosity. The sonata was written for Schubert's friend Karl Maria Bocklet, an excellent pianist. The ringing chords of the opening lead to brilliant scale passages that chase each other up and down the keyboard, in parallel and contrary motion. The second theme slows to a graceful two-note repeated figure, creating a more hesitant step, but it has scarcely established itself before it is interrupted with fortissimo broken chords. Schubert is profligate with his themes throughout, and the overall impression is of impatience, energy and enthusiasm.

The second movement begins as an oasis of serenity. Essentially a song without words in five parts, the phrases are long and lyrical, the themes are worked out in a leisurely way, and there are frequent fermatas where the motion simply comes to a halt. There are outbursts in fortissimo here as well, but gentleness triumphs when bluster is spent. At over thirteen minutes, it is the longest movement of the sonata, but Schubert's spacious, lengthy phrases and shifting harmonies create a timeless, dream-like world in which there is no hurry to reach the end.

The scherzo returns to the vigor of the first movement, starting with fortissimo chords and sharp accents. The hemiola, a rhythmic displacement of the apparent downbeat which makes ¾ time sound temporarily like 2/4, is liberally used throughout. The contrasting middle section offers a relief from dotted rhythms and returns to a more placid motion—quarter notes gliding through different keys and moods in dynamics ranging from piano to fortissimo.

The final movement, a rondo, begins with a simple, child-like song, with a skipping melody line in dotted rhythms and an ostinato accompaniment like the ticking of a clock. The contrasting sections between the returns of the rondo theme delight in virtuosity. A songful interlude in G major is interrupted by a brusque Turkish march in G minor, where every other beat is accented. The extensive coda begins a little slower and the ticking clock seems to slowly wind down before it comes to a stop. After so much bravura, the sonata ends with a gentle sigh.

Copyright Diane Walsh 2008

Working in the Theater - October 29, 2007

I'm back from Washington, D.C., where I spent August and September at Arena Stage, as The Pianist in a brilliant new play by Moises Kaufman, about Beethoven, the creative process, and the nature of obsession. (You can read more about it, and listen to an NPR item about it, on the Links page.) I played portions of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" throughout the play. The beautiful Steinway piano had its own niche built for it, at the front of the stage. The high point for me came in the second act, when Graeme Malcolm, as Beethoven, and I have a duet, during which he composes the penultimate variation, a fugue. The audience hears him describe the music a split second before they hear me play it. The timing had to be perfect, so it would seem as if he were evoking the music with his words. Most nights this scene stopped the show.

The play is unusual in its use of Beethoven's glorious music as the glue to hold the drama together. Of course the play is ABOUT the music, but it is also about the characters, in both the 19th and 21st centuries, and I somehow felt as if the music itself was functioning as another character in the play. I found myself tearing up at the same places almost every night, and watching the performances on stage nightly was compelling to me, as a witnessing, but also participating, member of the ensemble. I certainly never got bored or tired of the show, despite the schedule of eight shows a week for a month.

Even though I'm a veteran performer, in this production I had the feeling of entering a whole new world which has its own rituals, lore and superstitions. On opening night I got lovely handwritten notes from the actors, the director and the stage manager, plus thoughtful little gifts left in my dressing room. It's very different from the music world, where usually I'm given a five-minute call and a stage crew member ushers me unceremoniously into the wings--and flowers arrive after the show, not before. At Arena Stage my dresser peeked in to my dressing room every night to wish me a good show. From the dressers' point of view, I was a fairly low-maintenance member of the cast, (since I only had one costume and no wig) but for me it was an unaccustomed luxury to have my costume maintained (i.e. buttons sewn back on) and dry cleaned once a week, eliminating the dreaded garment bag schlepping to and from the theater.

Now that I'm back home to my normal musical life, I miss the camaraderie with the actors, the dim blue light in the wings, the choreographed curtain calls, and our late nights at Tunnicliff's Tavern on SE 7th street for pizza washed down with drafts of beer. Fortunately, some of the actors --Graeme and his wife, plus Mary Beth Peil, who played the present-day musicologist, Erik Steele, who played Beethoven's secretary, Greg Keller, who played the nurse, and Susan Kellerman, who played the music librarian-- are all coming to my recital this weekend. It should be a great reunion.

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