Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Decca 485 2731 53:38 mins
When Mitsuko Uchida recorded the mighty Hammerklavier Sonata, her album won Recording of the Year at the 2008 BBC Music Magazine Awards. Yet it has taken since then for the Japanese pianist to return to Beethoven on disc. Has the wait been worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. Her Diabelli Variations are a triumph of wit and character, revelling in the humour that the composer took in turning the unassuming ‘cobbler’s patch’ theme into an expansive solo piano work that, when played at its best, seems to encompass all human life.
Over 33 variations, Beethoven juxtaposes contrasting moods and musical styles with endless invention and kaleidoscopic vision. Uchida manages to bring out the individuality of each variation without losing sight of its context in the whole, balancing the composer’s voice with her own inimitable style. Each variation deserves comment, but a smattering of my highlights will have to do – though any listener will undoubtedly have their own. There are moments to delight in the quality of the playing itself: the deliciously controlled pitter-patter of quavers in variation two, or the nimble fingerwork of variation 25. At others, it is all about drama, rhetoric and storytelling: the punchy silences of variation 13, say, or the pensive recollections of variation 18.
Yet it’s in her handling of the profundity lying beneath that Uchida makes her Diabellis stand out. Underneath the constantly changing surface runs a seam of solemnity and devotion, whether mystical, enigmatic, lyrical, or consolatory. It is this that lingers in the memory, long after Uchida has (metaphorically) danced the Diabelli’s final minuet.