Concert Review: Master’s garden of thematic variants: pianist Adam Neiman expertly takes on Beethoven in Camerata Pacifica performance

Santa Barbara News-Press
By Josef Woodard
Sunday, November 24, 2013

Concert Review: Master’s garden of thematic variants: pianist Adam Neiman expertly takes on Beethoven in Camerata Pacifica performance

Variety has always been one of the operative spices in the programming of Camerata Pacifica, to its credit and to our intrigue. The group’s November concert, for example, shifted away from the diverse chamber grouping policy and into simpler, sparser math: one musician, one composer. Of course, it made a critical difference that the composer was Beethoven, and the performer was the Camerata’s pianist marvel Adam Neiman. There was nothing lean or wanting here, in a powerful and prodigiously delivered thicket of music.

By Friday night at Hahn Hall, Mr. Neiman had his work cut out for himself, taking it upon himself to play both Beethoven’s arduous “Hammerklavier” sonata and the major undertaking of “Diabelli Variations.” For that afternoon’s shorter “lunch concert” program in the Camerata Pacifica series (wonderful thing, that), the pianist focused on the calmly stunning, hour-long and 33-part opus that is Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” Hearing the piece in a singular sitting, without distractions, was something akin to an epiphany—but in that special category of the half-expected epiphany.

We’ve heard this amazing work in Santa Barbara before, and by no less a sublime pianist that Peter Serkin, who has played it twice at the Lobero, most recently in 2011, on another hardy Beethoven-based program, mated with the fiendish Opus 110 sonata. What is with these self-challenging grand pianists? Then again, who’s complaining?

Based on an insubstantial kernel of a theme by publisher and composer Anton Diabelli, Beethoven put great effort and thought into spinning wheels of epic invention. It opens with a sprightly and slight declaration of the waltz melody, followed by a strangely stately variation, and onward, forward and sideways into an extended hour of creative power. It adds up to a glorious opus, an odd yet engrossing puzzle in which the parts inform the whole, and vice versa.

Though not nearly as well-known, or as profound at the core, as Bach’s legendary and popular “Goldberg Variations,” Beethoven’s variations remain an important work, in the realms of solo piano literature, in Beethoven’s oeuvre, and in the specialized realm of theme-and-variations compositional thinking. Within the presumably tight limitations of working and reworking a simple, short piece of musical thematic putty, the composer brings a great wealth of creative energies to bear, concocting a world of its own.

Mr. Neiman brought the particular Beethoven-ian splendor of this piece to life on Friday afternoon. He ushered in a remarkable clarity and expressive poise and flexibility to the task. Some kind of extra x factor was at work in making the afternoon’s performance unique. In the context of the single-player, single-work lunch concert—and in the accommodating ambience of Hahn Hall—the singularity and unified wholeness of the score shone through all the more.

There is an air of cool analytical feeling in the piece, based on the conceptual and sometimes witty tack of viewing a theme from multiple angles, a disciplined but restless spirit in contrast with the more free-ranged and self-generated musical materials of his other solo work.

Modes of mood and musicality vary wildly in the 33 Variations, from hushed, rubato moments to fast knotty fingerwork, grandly sweeping passages and Bach-ish counterpart. After an especially vigorously chordally melodic segment, a rapturous and prayerful variation seduces us, akin to the famous Variation No. 25 in the “Goldberg Variations.”

Nearly an hour later, it all ends with a crisp, finalizing major chord, without great climactic fanfare. We are sent back to the real world, but, thanks to the accomplished and persuasive performance by Mr. Neiman, once again enriched by contact with this immortal strange beauty of a musical maze.