Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Dux
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
PERFORMER: Jean-Claude Henriot
CATALOGUE NO: ECM 476 4166

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The French pianist Jean-Claude Henriot is a former national bridge champion, and thinks the card game and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations both require the same sort of strategic planning. Accordingly, he takes his time: his tempos are often unusually slow – even the Presto scherzando is relatively sedate – which can, in some variations, rob the music of its gut excitement. On the other hand, where he lets the music float rather than pushing it, he reveals gentle lyricism and deep wells of tenderness – the Fughetta is wonderfully dreamy. But, on the whole, he follows Beethoven’s markings religiously, and finds much beauty as a result. After the closing fugue, which he gives ironclad force, he turns the visionary envoi with exquisite grace.

Excellent though it is, this recording faces formidable competition. My favourite depends on my mood: for majestic power and a translucent arc, I listen to Maurizio Pollini (DG), but if I want poetic suggestiveness I go to Piotr Anderszewski’s lovely version (Virgin). But when the chips are down, the winner is Artur Schnabel (Naxos), still oracular after 75 years.

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Michael Church