A famous French musician and journalist Bruno Monsaingeon, who gained recognition for his films about great musicians, such as Nadia Boulanger, Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, and Mstislav Rostropovich, made a film about young Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in 2000.
More specifically, he made a film about a piece that he played – Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The shooting took place in Lugano and depicted the recording process. First, Anderszewski sits behind the grand piano and talks about how he hears the music and what he thinks about it, plays some excerpts while slightly exaggerating some of the details. In the second part he performs the Variations in their entirety, just like at a concert. It is impossible to look away. The gigantic opus with which the composer said goodbye to piano music shows everything that Beethoven can do with the trite theme of Diabelli’s waltz. It is truly mesmerizing that we see various building blocks come together and form either grand cathedrals, or audacious technical structures such as overpasses or landscape parks with summer houses. “Diabelli is considered a difficult work for both the performers and the public,” says Anderszewski. “I do not agree. Yes, the theme is not as hypnotically beautiful as Bach’s theme in Goldberg Variations.
According to his contemporaries, Beethoven first decided against using it. But then he changed his mind and set himself an even more complex goal.” As is widely known, Diabelli, a music publisher and composer, asked musicians to write a variation on his waltz in 1819. His plan was to publish all the variations in a volume and to use the profits for charity. Around 50 composers responded, including Franz Schubert, Mozart’s son Xaver, Carl Czerny and his eight-year-old students Franz Liszt. Their variations were included into the first volume; in the second volume Diabelli published 33 (!) variations by Beethoven. Possibly such a cycle was a major move for Beethoven: he made the most of the theme, much more than all of his contemporary composers taken together. At first, he was revolted by the triviality of the waltz, but as if a powerful sorcerer, he diluted it with genre, tempo, and composition “solutions.” Certain motifs are criss-crossed and repeated. The composer makes fun of courtly pas, turns the waltz into a funeral march (but in major), or a scherzo, or a burlesque, or a striking fughetta (bathed in subthemes), ending the cycle with a fugue and a minuet. He seems to show that great lyricism and heroic spirit may come out of a pile of nothing. It is great luck that Piotr Anderszewski chose this work of Beethoven for his first concert in St Petersburg.