Paul Wellman

When Beethoven accepted the challenge laid down in 1819 by music publisher and composer Anton Diabelli to compose a series of variations on a relatively slight waltz theme, there was little indication of what would result. Other composers also took on Diabelli’s commission, but they only wrote single versions for what would become a collection of works by many hands. Beethoven went overboard, writing 33 variations and in the process creating what many consider to be the greatest single composition ever written for piano. In their startling complexity and harmonic invention, the Diabelli Variations are, as Arnold Schoenberg declared in his Structural Functions of Harmony, “the most adventurous work by Beethoven.” This monumental piece of music formed the centerpiece of an extraordinary recital by pianist Peter Serkin at the Lobero on Tuesday night.

Serkin began this recital with Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. This intimidating work has earned its place in music history as the first fully atonal composition, and Serkin rendered it in all of its moody, free-form grandeur. From there he launched into Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110. This composition had a huge influence on Schoenberg and is filled with the fugal elements and intimations of mortality characteristic of Beethoven’s challenging late style. Taken together, the two pieces on the first half of the program affirmed the impression that this would be a night to remember.

The second half of the recital was reserved for the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz, Op. 120 by Anton Diabelli, which clocked in at almost exactly one hour of playing time. Little in the realm of musical experience could prepare one for this incredible tour de force. The architecture of the piece nearly defies comprehension, yet the force of Beethoven’s vision saturates every passage. Serkin’s impeccable technique and astounding focus generated waves of the most exquisite overtones, reminding listeners of how invested the composer was at the time in the art of the string quartet and the symphony. Overall, this was one of the most impressive recitals to take place in Santa Barbara this century, and it may be some time before anyone can top it


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