Beethoven: Variations, Opp. 34 & 35 (Eroica), WoO 69-71, 78-80

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Variations, Opp. 34 & 35 (Eroica), WoO 69-71, 78-80
PERFORMER: Olli Mustonen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 436 834-2 DDD
The most substantial works here are the Eroica Variations, Op. 35 and their companion-piece, the Variations, Op. 34. Beethoven himself made justifiable claims for their originality: the Op. 35 set (whose theme subsequently formed the basis of the Eroica Symphony’s finale) begins in passacaglia style, using only the theme’s quirky bass line, and culminates in a large-scale fugue; while Op. 34 throws most of the accepted principles of variation writing out of the window – each successive variation being in a different key, tempo and metre. Also included are two sets based on popular Italian opera arias of the day, and a further two in which Beethoven has fun with ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’.

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Olli Mustonen’s style is nothing if not highly idiosyncratic. His liking for spiky accents and extreme staccatos means that true legato playing is very much at a premium; yet there’s no denying the vividness of these interpretations. They sound like genuine, single-take performances – an impression that is reinforced by a healthy sprinkling of wrong notes (none of them of any real consequence). And thanks to a sensibly steady tempo the well-known 32 Variations in C minor sound for once like music, rather than mere finger exercises. Misha Donat