Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109; Ten National Airs with Variations, Op. 107

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109; Ten National Airs with Variations, Op. 107
PERFORMER: Olli Mustonen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 63282 2
Beethoven’s two collections of variations for piano and flute, Opp. 105 and 107, form a fascinating and little-known episode in the last decade of his life. They were written for the Scottish folksong enthusiast George Thomson, who wanted undemanding pieces that could be enjoyed by the ladies of Edinburgh. But Beethoven, who was busy completing his Hammerklavier Sonata, was in no mood for compromise. He used the variations as a veritable experimenting-ground for ideas he was to develop at greater length not only in the Hammerklavier, but also in his last three sonatas, Opp. 109-11; and in the end his patience with the hapless Thomson’s repeated exhortations to keep the music simple snapped. ‘You always write facile, très facile,’ he told him, ‘but my fee could be more difficile!!!’ (Nothing of the story behind these pieces is contained in the singularly uninformative CD booklet, in which Thomson’s name doesn’t even appear.)

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Beethoven’s variations were published as being for piano, with accompaniment for flute or violin ad lib, but there are times when the secondary instrument adds contrapuntal interest, or even takes over the melody itself. The concluding variation of the set based on the Ukrainian tune ‘Schöne Minka’, for instance, sounds strangely empty when deprived of its flute part, as here. No less curious is Olli Mustonen’s keyboard style itself, with its spasmodic rubato and bizarrely spiky touch. His wilful lack of legato also affects the Op. 109 Sonata, for which there is no shortage of preferable alternatives. The beautifully recorded version by Richard Goode is warmly recommended. Misha Donat