Beethoven: Variations, Opp. 34, 35 & 76; WoO 77, 78, 79, 80

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Variations, Opp. 34, 35 & 76; WoO 77, 78, 79, 80
PERFORMER: Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901775
Beethoven was at pains to stress that his Opp. 34 and 35 variation sets were written ‘in a quite new style and each in an entirely different way’. His claim was no mere salesmanship: the Op. 34 Variations discard the rulebook altogether, and have each variation in a different key, tempo and metre from the last; while in the Op. 35, so-called Eroica set (Beethoven used its theme again in the finale of his Eroica Symphony) three variations on its skeletal bass-line unfold before the theme appears at all, and there is no indicated tempo change until the Largo preceding the climactic fugue. Not that the first 14 variations need to be played at the same unrelenting pulse, but the player needs nevertheless to be wary of introducing too much radical change. The young French pianist Cédric Tiberghien doesn’t altogether escape the temptation, but his is a thoroughly musical performance, and one that reveals the music’s full grandeur. He has the measure of the Op. 34 set, too; and his account of the 32 Variations in C minor (WoO 80) is broad enough to make them sound like real music, rather than the string of exercises they so often seem to be. I liked his broken bass octaves in the theme of the Ruins of Athens set (Op. 76), too, with their appropriate hint of Turkish-style percussion instruments.

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All in all, an impressive disc. But if you want the Rule Britannia Variations (WoO 79) to sound as funny as they ought to, you need to turn to Brendel, who also shapes the Eroica set with greater coherence.