The Diabelli Variations (Op. 120) are Beethoven's last major work for the piano. The work went neglected for decades after its publication in 1824 until Hans von Bülow rediscovered it, championing it as the "Mikrokosmos of Beethoven's genius" (as if he had already heard Bartok). "Indeed", he wrote, "the whole world of tone and evolution of musical thought is outlined here, from the most contained contemplation to the most abandoned humor - an unbelievable rich variety". Many will agree that Op. 120 is one of Beethoven's foremost compositions; for sure the greatest set of variations ever written for the piano. Alfred Brendel (who recorded the work three times) even called it "the greatest of all piano works". Yet, unlike the sonatas, the work isn't heard too often in the concert hall.
Grigory Sokolov, winner of the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition (at age 16), is one of the most formidable and characterful pianists of our time. An uncompromising, awe-inspiring artist, famous in Europe (where he regularly performs) but virtually unknown elsewhere. He is by many considered to be the greatest living pianist. His recordings are sadly few, but there is a great DVD featuring Sokolov in recital (Live in Paris
; check out YouTube).
In this live recording from 1985, Sokolov reveals the Diabelli Variations as a daring and supreme masterpiece, with spellbinding, imaginative and colorful playing. Although Sokolov has a slight tendency to self-indulgence and idiosyncrasies here and there, his playing always remains tasteful and affectionate. In the fast variations, Sokolov displays a whirlwind power and intensity reminiscent of that other Russian giant, Sviatoslav Richter. All in all, a great performance on all accounts, magnetic from first to last. The piano sound is full and immediate. Highly recommended!
Overall playing time: 60 minutes.