Naboré’s love affair with the daunting Diabelli

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 15.04.2014

Contrary to many keyboard artists, pianist William Grant Naboré seems perfectly at home with Beethoven’s daunting Diabelli Variations. I saw him in performance at Steinway Hall in London a few years ago and watched him attack the keyboard the instant his derrière hit the piano bench. No gazing at the ceiling, no settling of the nerves, no crackling of the knuckles. He breezed through the 33 Variations like the wind.

Few pianists have achieved such an intimate relationship with the Diabelli gems although many have tried. 

I had a chat recently with Naboré on the occasion of his upcoming CD, “Diabelli” (Academy Productions), which I was able to hear privately before U.S. distribution in July. I was impressed how effortlessly his playing hops from contrapuntal perfection to warm emotionality to finger-blinding virtuosity. This recording is remarkable for all those points plus his clarity of articulation in the face of huge pianistic demands.

For answers, I sought him out at the highly regarded International Piano Academy Lake Como in Italy where he is long-time director. 

Naboré tells me his secret -- he has been deeply involved in the Diabelli since his teenage years as a prodigy in the United States and has built his mastery over it year by year. By now he has “become one” with this hour and 15 minutes of pure, distilled Beethoven keyboard genius. 

The original Diabelli waltz is transformed with such variety and originality, Naboré says, that life itself seems reflected therein. “I hope you will find something here about what it is to be human,” he adds, “-- the joys, the love, the anger, hope, belief, disbelief, disappointments, complaints, the sighs …” 

Naboré points out that Beethoven had the advantage of playing the Diabellis on his beloved Broadwood, a much lighter-action instrument than today’s Steinway. The modern iron-framed instrument produces greater power but at the expense of touch. By about 1875, new techniques of playing had to be developed to master the mechanics of the modern piano. The Diabelli became more difficult than ever.

Further casting doubts over the variations is the notion, shared by many commentators even today, that the waltz theme is too trivial to work with. “Many performers … use this contempt as a tool with which to bang, batter, and otherwise abuse Diabelli’s simple, lively, and unassuming short waltz,” wrote Eleanor Perrone, a piano faculty member of the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, in an essay on the pieces. 

Naborde adds: “Today, playing at speed, in forte and articulating at the same time is a great challenge for any pianist.” One of the best examples of carrying it off well, he believes, is Rudolf Serkin’s 1954 live recording, now available on YouTube:.


To better understand the structure of this sprawling composition, it is useful to think in terms of eight groupings of four variations each. Each includes a major departure from common practice. For example, the first variation, instead of stretching out the spirit and rhythm just laid down, Beethoven blasts the listener with a march maestoso, contrasting brutally with the sweeter theme. Each grouping then has its surprises --  such as accents on weak beats, trills and “syncopated joy”, Naboré writes in his program note. Grouping 7 is the scherzo section, followed in the final grouping, the “crowning glory of the entire set”, by the equivalent of the slow movement, ending in whimsical departure.

The story behind the Variations is an example of the random circumstances that often lurk behind great achievements in the arts. Viennese publisher and minor composer Anton Diabelli decided in 1819 to invite 50 composers to write a variation on a simple (some say simple-minded) waltz of his own creation. Czerny, Moscheles, Hummel, Schubert and Liszt were among those invited. His plan was to publish a book of these variations for piano students. 

Beethoven, already an established composer of the grandest works, at first sniffed at the offer. But in the end, he found potential for his special talents in Diabelli’s bouncy waltz, and over several years proceeded to twist it, turn it, make it march, make it weep, make it dance, make it religious, profane and humorous. “Like an ugly ducking,” says Naboré, “Diabelli’s innocuous little waltz becomes a swan.”

In the end, Diabelli & Co. brought out two volumes – one combining several composers, the other devoted solely to Beethoven’s collection. Significantly, Beethoven called his versions “Veranderungen” (Transformations), not “Variationen” (Variations), an indication that he considered these short pieces well above the level of bagatelles. Who could not agree with that assessment?

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