Ten years after his award-winning Beethoven sonatas, Gerard Willems braves the composer’s pianistic Everest, the Diabelli Variations.

What was your reaction when producer Brendan Ward first put the Diabelli project to you?

I was a bit in awe of it because the piece is incredibly complex. But I had a feeling that this would be the challenge of a lifetime and this ultimately swayed me. It’s an enormous project. What makes it so complex is the fact that, in a very short space of time, you’re dealing with every imaginable difficulty Beethoven could possibly have included in a piece of music.

After doing the sonatas and then the concertos did you have any trepidation about this recording?

Doing the sonatas was a bit like climbing Mount Everest, so I was looking for the next high mountain. It was good to have another life-affirming challenge brought into my working life.

Had you played the Diabellis before?

No, I’d never attempted it. I’ve owned the music all my life so I was acquainted with it, but I wasn’t seriously approaching it. I always thought if I ever played it, it had to be done for a special moment, and this was it.

How many pianists have recorded the Diabelli Variations?

No one in Australia, and probably about 20 to 25 around the world I would say. I think it is the least recorded of all Beethoven’s works, because it’s for the aficionados. There’s a sort of sub-culture about the Diabelli Variations. There are stories about it, and a play by Moisés Kaufman, because it’s such an unusual piece. In a lot of ways it’s very similar in composition and structure to the Goldberg Variations of Bach. I think Beethoven was influenced by Bach’s sense of coming from a very small theme that was written by someone else and then letting it evolve into a larger-than-life, larger-than-the-world experience.

You have recorded all Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos on a Stuart piano. Why were you so keen to do the Diabellis on a Stuart?

I thought it would be perfect to complete the whole recording cycle on the Stuart and maintain uniformity in the project. And it was very fortunate that a new model Stuart became available with extra notes in the bass – a whole octave. While I didn’t need to use them they did lend a resonance to the rest of the piano that gave it an extra richness and orchestral colour. But going back to the beginning in 1996, it was serendipity that Wayne Stuart had just invented this piano around the same time that Brendan talked me into doing the sonatas.

You obviously have a great affection for the Stuart piano.

Yes. I always say it’s a wild beast that needs to be tamed and not everybody can do it. Not everybody is flexible enough in their attitude because they have a certain technique, particularly people from the American or the Russian school of piano playing. They can’t seem to get a tone out of the Stuart because their approach to the keyboard is too harsh. With the Stuart, less is more. The instrument works for you if you have the right approach. You’ve got to treat it with love and affection and your own imagination. So I was a bit like a lion tamer… just look into its big yellow eyes and off you go.

How do you think Beethoven came to compose the Diabelli Variations? There seem to be quite a few different theories.

Diabelli was a music publisher as well as a composer and he wrote this little waltz which was pretty meaningless. It doesn’t even have a melody, just a series of harmonic sequences, so it’s not something you can actually sing, making it an ideal vehicle for variation writing. Diabelli then sent this little waltz to 50 composers in Vienna, including Schubert and Czerny, and of course Beethoven, and asked each one to write a variation, which he would publish as the Diabelli Variations. But Beethoven, behind everybody’s back, started writing a number of variations, though not in the sequence that we know now. In fact his second variation was one of the last. Besides that, Beethoven didn’t compose this as a complete work. He wrote it over a period of four years and challenged Diabelli to then publish the work as another set of Diabelli Variations, which is the one everybody knows today.

So Beethoven, being Beethoven, didn’t go just one better, he went 33 better.

That’s right, and the 33 is quite interesting. He wrote 32 sonatas, then 32 C minor variations. There are 33 variations in the Diabelli. He wrote a set of variations, Opus 34, in F major, and then there are his Opus 35 variations. So there’s a bit of numerology going on with the sequence of 32, 33, 34, 35, all to do with variations. Whether this just happened, or whether it was intentional, no one really knows.

Any plans to do more Beethoven recordings?

There are certainly some challenges in the chamber music of Beethoven. But for further recording I think I might do a Schubert disc, which is totally out of the realm of what we’ve done so far. I have a great affinity for Schubert. He died at the age of 31, his life is tragic and his music expresses this tragedy. I’d love to put my stamp on it.