Diabelli Variations review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week

Mitsuko Uchida
The pianist’s clarity and dexterity brings humour and insights to Beethoven’s contradictory colossus of a work

It 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.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ferdinand Ries: Piano Trio and Sextets review – Beethoven’s biographer steps into the spotlight
Ries has been overshadowed by his master, but the pianist/composer had plenty of talent – and ego – of his own, as these chamber works show

Erica Jeal

30, Jun, 2022 @2:17 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, etc – review

This is the best kind of historically informed performance, one that makes you listen to a familiar work with fresh ears, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

16, May, 2012 @2:21 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 101 & Op 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ review – the power of Pollini | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The pianist’s severe, analytical style engages with two of the most challenging works in the repertoire to produce a disc of compelling, muscular authority

Andrew Clements

08, Dec, 2022 @3:30 PM

Article image
Beethoven and Stravinsky Violin Concertos review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
In his first recording as conductor, Pekka Kuusisto is insightful and in control, and Vilde Frang brings electricity to both concertos

Erica Jeal

20, Oct, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Uchida review – immaculate yet routine
The pedigree pairing of orchestra and pianist brought beautiful moments to these Mozart concertos, but felt uninvolving

Andrew Clements

08, Feb, 2019 @12:24 PM

Article image
Elgar: Violin Concerto; Violin Sonata review – sheer beauty and subtle playing
Simon Rattle takes the concerto back to the 19th century and Renaud Capuçon’s partnership with Stephen Hough for the sonata is a meeting of equals

Andrew Clements

25, Feb, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Puccini: Turandot review | Classical CD of the week
Puccini’s original score was ‘finished’ by Franco Alfano, whose additions are heard uncut on this dramatic all-star recording

Erica Jeal

09, Mar, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations CD review – Filippo Gorini's fearless, breathtaking debut disc
Filippo Gorini

Kate Molleson

17, Aug, 2017 @2:30 PM

Article image
Beethoven: The Late Quartets review | Andrew Clements classical album of the week
Brodsky Quartet
(Chandos, three CDs)

Andrew Clements

09, Jan, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven, Brahms review - Sokolov finds radical Beethoven
Grigory Sokolov
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CDs, 1 DVD)
He last gave a concert in the UK in 2007, so any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest pianists is welcome, though this is uneven

Andrew Clements

07, May, 2020 @2:00 PM