Beethoven: Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 34

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 34
PERFORMER: Gianluca Cascioli (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 457 613-2
Olli Mustonen’s performance of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations contains moments of absolutely spellbinding playing, with textures of wonderful clarity and a deeply imaginative approach to the music. The first of the slow variations, for instance, is as genuinely poetic as I have ever heard it, while the dazzling group of variations that follows is tossed off with admirable verve. So far so good; yet elsewhere Mustonen has a maddening tendency to peck at melodic lines, and this wilful lack of legato seriously undermines several of the variations – among them the group in the minor near the close which forms the expressive high-point of the set as a whole. The final sublimated minuet, too, is badly lacking in gracefulness and elegance. Those qualities, together with wit and intellectual rigour, are present in abundance in Alfred Brendel’s interpretation of this great work. Of his two fine recorded versions, the ‘live’ 1976 Royal festival Hall performance best captures the music’s exuberance.

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Olli Mustonen’s disc is completed with some curiosities – notably a late string quintet fragment which survives only in a keyboard arrangement made and published by Diabelli under the title of ‘Beethoven’s Last Musical Thought’. There are more rarities in Gianluca Cascioli’s recital – among them, variation-sets based on operatic tunes by Salieri, Grétry and Süssmayr. More substantial are the Op.34 Variations on an Original Theme, and the equally subversive variations on ‘Rule Britannia’. Cascioli – still in his teens – produces the occasional burst of hard tone, but generally maintains the promise he showed in his earlier discs for DG. Misha Donat