Recital Review

N.C. School of the Arts: The Diabelli Variations and More

November 1, 2003 - Winston-Salem, NC:

After almost circumnavigating the N. C. School of the Arts Campus with the kind assistance of several students on November 1, we felt we deserved a wine and cheese reward for persistence in the maze resulting from needed major construction. Safely ensconced, we found that the warm acoustics of the newly opened Judy and Bill Watson Chamber Music Hall and pianist Clifton Matthews' choice program more than sufficed as an analogous "reward."

Serving as an appetizer, Haydn's Andante con variazioni , in F Minor, Hob.XVII:6 (1793), opened the concert. In Haydn: A Creative Life in Music, Karl Geiringer notes its "special importance... (since it) belong(s) to the type of variations with two themes in which Haydn proved particularly successful. The main theme is in the style of a funeral march and is followed by a trio in the major mode. Both are varied twice, and a most imaginative coda ends the composition." The dedicatee was Barbara Ployer, for whom Mozart had already composed two piano concertos (K.449 and K.450). Even a novice listener could have had no difficulty following Matthews' clearly articulated playing leading up to the brilliant culmination in the final two minutes.

Without an intermission, Matthews served up the main dish, Beethoven's kaleidoscopic Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120. The author of the (unsigned) notes for Charles Rosen's recording of this work writes that these variations "are also a comic masterpiece. No other work of Beethoven is so informed with the comic spirit; no other displays so many varieties of his humor, including the most grossly farcical and the most sophisticated." Most are about a minute or so long with only three between four or five minutes in duration. In notes to Stefan Vladar's recording, Andreas Liebert asserts that what is described as a "waltz should properly be characterized: namely, as a quicker and less refined spinning dance related to the Ländler - thirty two bars of music which simply demand to be taken apart are reassembled, as Beethoven said, from 'cobbler's patches.'" These variations were the composer's last important work for the keyboard and the longest one that he composed as well as the longest single keyboard work since the Goldberg Variations of Bach. Matthews extracted a broad palette of color from his beautifully tuned Steinway. He succeeded in giving each short piece a maximum of individuality while giving great unity to the whole piece. Among the comic delights is the composer's mockery of then-fashionable brilliant variations on an aria theme, in Variation No. 22, where Leporello's "Notte e giorno faticar" is "found" in the left hand of Diabelli's first phrase. The world of Bach and Handel are saluted in the 24th and 32nd Variations. No. 24 is written in strict style with canon and inversion while the No. 32 bursts with typical Handelian exuberance with a massive and brilliant double fugue. Variations 19-21, in effect, form a slow movement of great pathos, in C minor. At the end, Diabelli's "waltz" returns, transfigured into an elaborate minuet. The comic tone is retained with the last chord, a genial forte, off-beat.

Watson Chamber Music Hall has a basic shoebox design with the stage ends brought in a bit away from the perpendicular. Lots of dark stained wood surfaces and exposed beams are visible along the sides, the stage, and around the slightly convex ceiling. A shallow high riser runs the full breadth of the back of the stage, perhaps intended for either a chamber choir or an extra stand of players in a chamber orchestra. Thick tapestries or acoustical curtains cover the high windows. The rows of comfortable seats are offset for better sightlines, and the rows are comfortably spaced. The seating capacity is 300. When construction has been completed, the hall will be readily accessible from a road cutting across the campus. This is still closed off due to work, so study the campus map to find the best way to get to Waughtown Road. Campus Police are posted near performance sites to give directions.