ECM New Series is better known for its documentation of contemporary works, but the music of the past sometimes receives coverage when artists bring a new perspective to it. The Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; and the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, are among the most original and intellectually stimulating works Ludwig van Beethoven composed for the piano, and the sophisticated interpretations of András Schiff are especially worthwhile for their insights into authentic performance practice and reception. Here, Schiff gives the listener options between a relatively modern sounding version of the Diabelli Variations and a period interpretation, without favoring one or the other. On the first CD he plays the Sonata and the Diabelli Variations on a Bechstein piano from 1921, though with minimal pedaling and a restrained execution that allows every inner voice and subtle dynamic to be appreciated. While this piano is not as hard or bright sounding as a modern Steinway, it is familiar to modern ears and most listeners will readily accept it. On the second CD, Schiff plays the Diabelli Variations, along with the Six Bagatelles, on a smaller sounding Franz Brodmann fortepiano, an original instrument from around 1820, Beethoven's time period.
…Another major strong point of this recording is the sound; the German audiophile label MDG outdoes itself here in an old riding stadium that displays the music's serenade-like textures to beautiful effect. Chamber players should absolutely get to know this music. There is nothing in the individual lines that would challenge good student musicians, but they stand to learn a great deal about subtle balance and interaction by playing this music. And they'll give their audiences a pleasant surprise, too.