Beethoven frequently wrote sets of variations either as stand-alone works or as movements of larger works. His most famous set of variations is probably the set that constitutes the final movement of his Third Symphony, the 'Eroica'. (For piano lovers his best set of variations is, without question, the monumental 'Variations on a Theme by Diabelli' for solo piano.) As it happens Beethoven used the 'Eroica' theme for another set of variations, this one for solo piano and included on this disc. The theme comes from his early ballet music for 'The Creatures of Prometheus', but universally this theme is called the Eroica theme because of its occurrence in the symphony. The 'Eroica Variations', heard here as played by Korean pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo, one of six sets of variations played on this disc, is easily the composer's second-best set of variations for piano. Yoo, a Korean Juilliard-trained pianist, plays the Eroica Variations in what one could call a masculine style, with sudden dynamic contrasts, huge fortissimos, brusque phrasing where needed as with the repeated outbursts of three double octaves in the theme. He repeatedly slights, however, the piano and pianissimo markings but plays at a mezzo-forte in many passages. However, he manages, for instance, the sotto voce Var. 4 with suitable softness. But he certainly bangs out the sforzato chords in, to my ears, crude fashion. Still this is a valid traversal of this work and there will be many who relish its marked contrasts.
It is often said that the theme for the 'Diabelli Variations' is a silly or trite or mundane thing. Whoever says that, however, would gape at the silly, trite and mundane theme for the 'Twelve Variations on the "Menuet à la Viganò" from Jakob Haibel's "Le nozze disturbate", WoO 71'. And frankly Beethoven doesn't do a whole lot with it that is very interesting throughout its thirteen minute length. In fairness, it is early Beethoven, from 1795. It gets a fair enough performance by Yoo. However, just the next year Beethoven wrote a charming set of variations on Paul Wranitzky's ballet 'Das Waldmädchen' and Yoo gives us a charming reading.
The next two sets of variations are only moderately interesting, although the set on Salieri's 'La stessa, la stessissima' from his Falstaff, has its share of charm. The final set of variations, though, Beethoven's Op. 76, written the same year as his 'Emperor' Piano Concerto, is another matter. Slight though it be and based as it is on the familiar but banal 'Turkish March' from his 'Ruin of Athens' it is both cleverly constructed and unfailingly interesting to hear (and to play, I must say). There are surprising octave displacements and glittering scales. Yoo plays it brilliantly.
One word about the recording. Occasionally the recorded sound of the piano becomes clangy. Worse, there are spots in the Eroica where the piano sounds out of tune. And there are some rare fumbled notes. This is not a live recording but presumably these were not caught and patched.
There are better recordings of the Eroica Variations if that is the main interest of anyone thinking to buy this release. They include the classic version by Alfred Brendel Beethoven: Für Elise; Eroica-Variationen and a more recent outstanding version by Cédric Tiberghien Beethoven: Variations pour Piano.