Think of this album as a classical remix project… done by the composers.
“Variations” was the magic word that was deployed when a composer had a penchant for jamming. There’s plenty of well-documented proof, aside from this album, that Beethoven had a knack for improvisation. He sometimes hid it from his stricter teachers, fearing it would appear too gauche and free. But as long as composers had the discipline to write down their keyboard noodlings in a proper notation and give them respectable names like “Variations on…” or “Variations on a Theme by…”, then they were good to go. World-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax has a fondness for the variations spun forth by the big names in musical history. Variations: Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann delivers what it promises, more than 74 minutes of ornately embellished classical piano (and as I understand it, the download edition of Variations: Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann comes with an Aaron Copeland piece). And up first is the Ludwig Van.
The CD’s first seventeen tracks are all variations on a theme from Beethoven’s third symphony, a piece so fierce in its dedication and subsequent rejection thereof, musical historians say that the force of Beethoven’s pen scratching out the name “Bonaparte” is visible on the original transcript’s second page. These variations come from the final dramatic movement of the “Eroica” symphony, even carrying on in the same key (E-flat major, if you were curious). And similar to, say, Mozart’s “Alla Turca” piano sonata, the overall chunk of work unfolds like a piece of origami, one small fold at a time. A grace note here, a 16th-note (or faster) flourish there, the jubilant themes of the final movement bloom again and again. Taken together, all of the variations exceed the length of the symphony’s final movement by at least fifteen minutes.
Track eighteen belongs to Haydn, one of Beethoven’s many mentors. Though Haydn was a little on the button-down old school side, he could still appreciate a tasteful musical joke—and presumably, some tongue-in-cheek improvisation was not below him. His 52nd piano sonata remains a touchstone of how variations were first spotted in the thick of the classical period. Ax actually goes for the one that came next, “Variations In F Minor (Sonata) Hob. XVII:6”. Over twelve minutes in length, it comes off as a little more obtuse but no less accomplished than his protege’s contribution.
The last sixteen tracks are Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes Op. 13”, based on material by Baron von Fricken and Heinrich Marschner. After a thematic statement, the variations are placed in and around the etudes. This is where the music gets heavier, with much more rubato, minor keys brooding like vultures and the kind of less-than-linear ornamentation that drove the piano during the romantic period. It also beats the other variations in length, spanning 35 minutes.
Emanuel Ax is a firm believer in piano variations as a legitimate art form. He asserts that variations such as these give us a glimpse into how good these guys were at playing their instruments. It’s an easy thing to forget since we obviously don’t have recordings or footage from that time. But great pianists they were. Schumann practiced so hard that he managed to injure himself. Beethoven got his ears boxed by his father every time he hit a wrong note. And Haydn was such a go-to guy in those days that composers like Beethoven and Mozart nicknamed him Papa Haydn. So how does Emanuel Ax handle the likes of “Symphonic Etudes Op. 13”, supposedly one of the most difficult piano pieces to play? Just as we forget how well Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann were at the keyboard, masterful playing from a classical world treasure tends to pass us by. He holds a scary command over the music, never letting his fast fingers and their corresponding notes get in the way of the music. And not just in how it sounds, but in how it feels. He lassos in the tension of these old giants who were caught between two worlds. Do I compose or do I jam? Oh, both move me so much! What do I do? Take an Ax to it, that’s what.