Themes and variations are the lowly stepchildren of classical music. Except for the occasional anomaly, like Beethoven’s Diabelli set, they fill out odd corners of programs, and allow players of varying levels of ability to perform without risk. Few listeners take a collection of variations as seriously as they would a suite or a sonata, even though these more respected genres often contain movements in variation form.

Cédric Tiberghien © Wigmore Hall
Cédric Tiberghien
© Wigmore Hall

But not so this week’s Wigmore Hall recital by Cédric Tiberghien, the French pianist known for the clarity and brilliance of his playing. Tiberghien offered an entire program of variations, seven collections by Schumann, Beethoven and Webern, treating each set – and within that set, each variation – as a unique expression of genius and imagination.

The program opened with Schumann's Etudes in variation form on a theme by Beethoven, WoO 31. This moody work includes themes from several Beethoven symphonies, including the Sixth and Seventh. Schumann’s own jagged harmonies are interspersed, creating a foreboding sense of imminent madness.

The warm-up continued with two sets of variations by Beethoven himself: “Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen,” the theme of a quartet from Winter’s opera, The Interrupted Sacrifice; and the aria “Quant’è più bello” from Paisiello’s opera, La Molinara. As Tiberghien played, you could almost see him being gradually absorbed into the music. By the second set of Beethoven variations, there was no dividing line separating soloist from sound, and one could hear, feel and almost see the jovial Beethoven who composed these strikingly original lines.

By the time he got to Webern's Variations, Op. 27 (the 12-tonist’s only major piece for solo piano), Tiberghien was in his element. Out of Webern’s lean, pared-down score, the soloist elicited waves of music, drawn out in arcs by expressive motions of his hands and arms. Indeed, his entire body was engaged in music making, and as much responsible for molding the sound as were his nimble fingers. There is a lot of cross-hands in this three-movement work, and the artist seemed to enjoy playing, listening, and being immersed in the unfolding of cleverly positioned 12-tone rows.

This energy spilled over into the next two sets of Beethoven variations: Six variations on “Nel cor piu non mi sento”, also from La molinara, and Eight variations on “Tändeln und Scherzen” from the opera Soliman oder die drei Sultaninnen by Franz Xaver Süssmayr (the composer famous for completing the Mozart Requiem).

These sets of variations by Beethoven contain some of his most imaginative ideas and give us a tantalizing taste of what his celebrated improvisations – lost to the ages – may have sounded like. About midway through the set of six, there is a variation as lovely as anything Beethoven ever composed. Tiberghien played this and the other gems in this collection from the heart, with appropriate mood and technical wizardry.

The final work was another eerie Schumann selection, the aptly named “Ghost Variations,” WoO 24. Shimmering under the soloist’s touch, these variations murmur of some state of consciousness beyond rational speculation, and ended the program as quiet as a kiss.


This performance was reviewed from Wigmore Hall's video stream

Watch the video here