Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2005 and the recording is still available.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Eroica Variations, Op. 35 (1802)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861)
Seta Tanyel, piano
rec. 1989, Abbey Road Studios, London
Hyperion CDH55201 
This Helios disc is a reissue of a Collins Classics recording from the early 1990s and offers excellent performances of two of the most well-known variations compositions for solo piano. Seta Tanyel is not among the most intense of pianists, but she delivers elegant and lovely readings combined with an exceptional display of playful personality when needed.
Brahms composed the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel in 1861 for Clara Schumann’s 42nd birthday. She played the work in public for the first time in Hamburg later that year. The Variations have their genesis in a theme in Handel’s Keyboard Suite in B flat where the theme is subjected to five variations. Brahms enlarged the scope to 25 variations and added an extended fugue.
Debate could go on for days concerning the merit of the Handel Variations in comparison to Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli. I love each of these works dearly, and would hate to make comparisons. Suffice to say that each work displays a wide and inspirational variety of music and is a staple of the keyboard genre.
Leon Fleisher’s account of the Handel Variations has been one of my favorites for many years, and I have to say that Tanyel is not far behind his superlative performance. The gorgeous phrasing she offers in the Theme is a good example of the priority she places on the sheer beauty in the work. Her rhythmic lift is always excellent and particularly appealing in Variations 3 and 10. When exuberance is called for, as in Variations 4, 7, and 8, Tanyel is fast out of the gate and never looks back. She also provides a melting lyricism that pierces the heart, Variations 11 and 18 being prime examples. To add to the allure of her performance, she creates compelling mystery in Variations 5 and 21. This is the area where I find Tanyel better than Fleisher. He doesn’t place a high priority on mystery, and his dry acoustic is of no assistance.
I do have a few quibbles about Tanyel’s Handel Variations. Her trills are generally not perfectly formed, a little problem most noticeable in Variation 1. The result is that the trills do not seem an integral part of the musical argument. My other reservations concern some lack of tension in Variation 9 that dampens the sense of intense struggle, and a uniform lack of menace to Variations 23 and 24; the rolled chords in Variation 24 are particularly benign (although loud). These are reservations that hold the performance back from being outstanding, for it is an excellently played interpretation that I have enjoyed very much over the past few weeks.
Beethoven’s Eroica Variations is based on a binary theme from the finale of his ballet Prometheus written in 1801. The composer also used this same theme for one of his contredanses and in the finale of his Symphony No. 3. Beethoven considered the Eroica Variations to be highly unconventional in form, and its beginning is ample proof. Instead of starting with the presentation of the Prometheus theme, Beethoven creates an introduction where the theme’s bass is presented in octaves, then two parts, three parts and four parts. The Prometheus theme then takes over and is followed by 15 variations and a fugue.
When I listen to the Eroica Variations I am always impressed with its consistently brash and playful nature. A performance that well conveys these two qualities along with the intense melancholy of Variation 24 routinely gets my approval. Tanyel delivers on this front, with the work’s playful nature given center stage. I do wish she had placed greater emphasis on an aggressive presentation in the manner of Bernard Roberts, but the interpretation remains vital and rewarding. By the way, do try to hear the Sviatoslav Richter version on Music & Arts; the sound is not very appealing, but the performance has the most compelling and concentrated arpeggios I have ever encountered.
With excellent sonics having an ideal level of reverberation, I warmly recommend this Seta Tanyel disc at budget price. The performances are not among the best on record, but Tanyel’s playful Beethoven and loving Brahms make for a very attractive coupling. Those further interested in Tanyel’s artistry might like to know that she has several other recordings in the catalogs including two volumes of the Hyperion Romantic Piano series and a few discs on Helios devoted to the piano works of Moritz Moszkowski and Franz Xaver Scharwenka.
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