Listen: Beethoven Sonata, Op. 26 I

The question of how much to vary the tempo in a set of classical variations—or in a variation movement—is a thorny one.  My teachers were students of Serkin and Schnabel, so I was brought up to think twice before changing tempo to suit each variation.  Doing so might well rob the power of such tempo changes as the author does indicate; or negate, from one variation to the next, the progression of note-values designed to feint an increase or decrease in speed (while in fact keeping a steady pulse and harmonic rhythm); or flatten the effect of other contrasts the composer may be concerned with, perhaps of articulation, dynamics, or register.  A great example of these challenges is the bewitchingly elegant opening movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26:  how to allow for a certain ebb and flow, for an elasticity in the music, but without changing tempo in an obvious way.  (Incidentally, it is in the coda of this movement that Beethoven, for the very first time in his piano sonatas, explicitly marks senza sordino, i.e. to be played with damper pedal—a wonderful nugget courtesy of Barry Cooper and his invaluable new edition of the sonatas.) Here is this movement from my recent performance at the December Evenings Festival—was it successful in reconciling those conflicting goals?..