Not many pianists would attempt to perform Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations at all, let alone right after Christmas, and especially not a few days after getting married! But Matthew Bengtson, just wed, tackled Beethoven’s monumental late composition fearlessly. I was one of the fortunate to hear his sensitive and virtuosic rendition on December 30, along with my daughter Alysa, home from Germany, and her friend Miriam, a recent graduate of Reed College. Both girls are accomplished musicians and gave the concert four thumbs’ up. I asked Miriam for a few thought about Matt’s program, which began with Schumann. This is what she had to say:
“Matthew Bengtson’s interpretation of Schumann’s Nachtstücke, op. 23, four short pieces inspired by the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, transmitted the sense of the uncanny that links the Nachtstücke with Hoffmann’s writing. Speaking to the audience before he played, Bengtson explained that the final movement, Einfach (Simply,) is Schumann’s way of commenting on and summing up the rest of the piece. As in Hoffmann’s famous story “The Sandman,” the narrative voices of Einfach are convoluted and often overlap, and create a doubling that mimics the conflation of characters and their autonomy (or lack thereof).
“The Nachtstücke cast an interesting shadow over Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, as another example of the uncanny, or Das Unheimliche (literally the un-home-ly.) It shows how a composer is able to take something familiar and make it ‘strange.’ Beethoven wrote these variations in response to a competition held by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli, who composed a simple theme for thirty-two prominent composers of the day to embellish. The quality of ‘making-strange’ is inherent in any set of variations on a theme, but especially apparent in these variations. Beethoven moves Diabelli’s simple waltz through thirty-three variations, taking the music so far from its ‘Diabelli home’ that it becomes completely Beethoven. ”
Alysa said she was particularly moved by the later slow variations, whose spiritual nature were in keeping with the concert’s setting, the intimate Church of the Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. Roses, trailing evergreen, cascading ribbons and white candles (rather than the typical poinsettias) and a full-sized nativity scene at the altar captured the Christmas spirit. The concert was part of the Brown Bag lunchtime series offered every Wednesday at 12:30. As the audience quietly ate their sandwiches and munched on cookies, their tummies were nourished as well as their souls. It was an uplifting way to finish the holiday season and begin a new year.