Diabelli Variations review – Uchida’s unparalleled playing is made for this

Mitsuko Uchida (Decca)
The pianist’s clarity and dexterity brings humour and insights to Beethoven’s contradictory colossus of a work
t has taken until now for Mitsuko Uchida to lay down a recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. This colossal work, which grew out of a publisher’s request for one single variation on a fairly naff little tune, encapsulates so many of Beethoven’s contradictions – and Uchida, so adept at putting across music’s humour without diminishing its depth, is made for it.

Her playing conveys a keen sense of the music’s absurdities without exaggerating its quirks, gently raising an eyebrow at Beethoven’s passages of deliberate heavy-footedness and revealing that there is always a sincere, profound truth right behind them. It’s not so much that her sudden changes of inflection turn the music itself around, more that she lets us see through things to what’s waiting behind.

Mitsuko Uchida: Diabelli Variations album cover
Mitsuko Uchida: Diabelli Variations album cover. Photograph: Decca
At the start, the theme bounces and bumbles along, with the downward scales at the end of each phrase jumping out at us just a little, as if the music is saying it might be up for a joke later. But in the first variation, by stressing each long chord slightly in a way that makes the music sound like it’s puffing up to the top of the keyboard, Uchida simultaneously introduces and skewers the pomposity that informs so many of the variations to come – something that dissolves, temporarily but instantly, in the delicacy of the next variation. And so it continues, with a constant thread tying the variations together through so many jack-knife changes of mood.

Variation 20 sounds fascinating, all strangely modern-sounding harmonies in search of a melody; two variations later, Beethoven quotes the melody sung by Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni grumbling about working night and day – was he getting fed up, or was he on a roll? – and the clarity and dexterity of Uchida’s playing here is a delight.

Beethoven ends his variations, as he began, with a dance – but this delicately wrought yet expansive minuet is to that stomping little opening tune as a butterfly is to a caterpillar. In Uchida’s quietly poised hands it is at once the culmination of an entertainingly roundabout journey and the opening-up of a whole new vista.

This week’s other pick
The Leonore Trio’s new recording for Hyperion is of music by Woldemar Bargiel, Clara Schumann’s younger half-brother. Here are two bafflingly neglected piano trios in gloriously vibrant performances. If you’ve ever wished there was more chamber music to discover by Brahms and Robert Schumann, this is a real treat.

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