Among the early announcements for next year’s Beethoven frenzy – if not for his chronic health, the composer would have been 250 – comes the intriguing news that Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder has invited 11 living composers to write their own variations on the theme at the heart of Beethoven’s famous Diabelli Variations. His illustrious list of chosen contributors are Krzysztof Penderecki, Rodion Shchedrin, Max Richter, Jörg Widmann, Toshio Hosokawa, Lera Auerbach, Brad Lubman, Philippe Manoury, Johannes Maria Staud, Tan Dun and Australia’s own Brett Dean.

Brett DeanBrett Dean. Photo © Richard Hubert Smith

“I was approached by Rudolf Buchbinder directly; in fact, I received a hand-written letter from him, a rare treasure to receive nowadays,” Dean told Limeight. “We’d got to know one another during my time as Composer-in-Residence at his Grafenegg Festival some years ago and became very fond of one another. I was very interested to be part of it from the outset; I love Rudi’s playing of the great central European classical and romantic repertoire and that made the idea all the more appealing; to delve into this project around such a cornerstone of piano literature with a great master like Buchbinder at the helm.”

Thanks to Buchbinder’s new and exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, the new works will be recorded for release next March. The same month will see the world premiere of all 11 compositions at the Vienna Musikverein as part of a concert that will also include a performance of Beethoven’s original Variations plus a selection of the works from Diabelli’s original collected anthology, which included contributions by Carl Czerny, Schubert, Mozart’s son Franz Xaver, Hummel and the 11-year-old Franz Liszt. Buchbinder will then take the new works on a 2020 world tour.

“It has always been my goal to merge tradition and innovation, faithfulness and freedom, authenticity and open-mindedness in definitive interpretations,” says Buchbinder, who as a performer can look back on 60 years of concertising. “Deutsche Grammophon stands for these values; it is the epitome of artistic excellence. So, I am very much looking forward to our years together.”

Brett DeanRudolf Buchbinder © Marco Borggreve

The story of Anton Diabelli’s occasionally maligned theme has become one of classical music’s most riffed-upon legends. In 1819, the Viennese composer and publisher sent a brief waltz to a list of popular composers asking them to write one variation each in order to raise charitable funds for the many widows and orphans created over the decades-long course of the Napoleonic Wars. As it was, 51 composers responded to his request with Diabelli’s collection eventually being published in 1824.

According to Beethoven’s notoriously unreliable secretary, Anton Schindler, the crotchety composer initially turned his nose up at the banality of Diabelli’s theme, and Beethoven himself once wrote that Diabelli’s waltz was a “Schusterfleck” (a cobbler’s patch). However, he must have seen something in it, because in a matter of months he had notched up 23 variations. Laying the work aside while he completed the Missa Solemnis and the last piano sonatas, Beethoven finally completed the work in 1823. As it turned out, the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli would be the composer’s last completed large-scale piano work.

Buchbinder, now 73, is a Beethoven specialist who attended the Vienna Music Academy from the age of five and made his Musikverein debut at age 11. Over the years he has performed the complete cycle of 32 sonatas a remarkable 50 times. He calls the Diabelli Variations the most complex ever written, referencing its technical, intellectual, and not least its physical demands, while describing it as “a huge mountain to be conquered”.

“Rudolf Buchbinder knows Beethoven’s music intimately and, perhaps for this very reason, discovers new worlds in these works in a way that no other pianist could. His Diabelli project will be a unique contribution to the Beethoven year,” says Dr Clemens Trautmann, President of Deutsche Grammophon. “It bridges the gap between Beethoven and his contemporaries on the one hand, and today’s musicians and music-lovers on the other.”

As for the new Brett Dean Variation: “As far as my own ideas about it, it’s a highly unusual challenge, which I’m still getting my head around to be honest,” Dean admits, “but I’ve still got a bit of time up my sleeve.”