Czech-born Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder started studying Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations as a student more than 50 years ago and they have remained an essential part of his musical life ever since. He has 39 printed editions of the complete sonatas in his library, and years of studying and performing all the composer’s piano music has freed him up from the strictly faithful interpretations of his youth – now, he says, he can be “more daring, perhaps”.

All this distilled wisdom is brought to bear on his latest Beethoven foray, The Diabelli Project, for which he commissioned 11 contemporary composers, including Australia’s Brett Dean, to come up with their own variation on Anton Diabelli’s waltz tune. The result is a fascinating musical kaleidoscope, all affectionately dedicated to Buchbinder.

These works, which include contributions from Tan Dun, Max Richter and Rodion Schedrin, are featured on the second of the two discs in the set.

When in 1819 Diabelli issued his invitation to “patriotic artists” from Austria to compose a variation on his theme there was an enthusiastic response from several composers, among them Franz Schubert, Mozart’s son Franz Xaver Wolfgang and a pre-pubescent Franz Liszt. Eight of these short pieces round out the set.

Beethoven famously spurned the music publisher’s challenge at first, offering instead to write a few variations if the money was right. He put those aside for four years, finally adding more variations to the Keystone Kops-like romp of the original tune, through to the lofty and noble high art of the 31st and 33rd variations, which are in much the same vein as his late sonatas, one in fact quoting his final sonata, the Opus 111.

Buchbinder considers the Diabelli Variations to be perhaps Beethoven’s most exciting work, and it is interesting to compare this reading with his 1973 Teldec survey. The composer set the performer several challenges and peppered his permutations with some musical jokes and quotations from others – including the famous Don Giovanni theme of Variation 22 – and Buchbinder’s assured navigation of this spectacularly diverse landscape makes this new Deutsche Grammophon release a must-have addition to any record collection.

Title: The Diabelli Project
Music by: Beethoven et al
Performer: Rudolf Buchbinder p
Label: DG 4837707 (2CD)