Beethoven/Caine: Diabelli Variations

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven/Caine
LABELS: Winter & Winter
WORKS: Diabelli Variations
PERFORMER: Concerto Köln
CATALOGUE NO: 910 086-2
Try to imagine Stravinsky, Liszt, Ives, Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa and ‘player-piano’ wizard Conlon Nancarrow all getting together to pay tribute to Beethoven. Imagine that the party starts reasonably harmoniously, but gets wilder and wilder, with ferocious arguments and even more breathtaking agreements – and that somewhere along the way the party is gatecrashed by Scott Bradley (creator of those brilliant early Tom and Jerry scores). If you can, you might have something remotely like Uri Caine’s Diabelli Variations. For the purist it will be beyond nightmare. I think it’s sublime – witty, joyously subversive, fantastically exuberant, at times so funny I laughed out loud – and yet what emerges ultimately is a passionate and very musicianly love and admiration for Beethoven’s last and greatest set of variations.

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Unlike Caine’s Bach tribute, the Goldberg Variations, which in some ways were even wilder, this follows the course of Beethoven’s original variations closely and audibly (apart from one or two wicked deviations). Concerto Köln plays the skilful orchestrations with vitality and an impeccable sense of period style – which only makes Caine’s pranks and elaborations at the fortepiano all the more subversive in effect. Still, if you know the Beethoven you’ll hear that many of Caine’s most outrageous fancies actually derive straight from what Beethoven does with Diabelli’s banal, four-square theme. But if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. This is quite captivating enough on its own terms: as the kind of complex, teasing, multi-referential ‘work’ that could only be created today. Instead of written commentary, the booklet contains 33 architectural drawings, all variations on one very simple house – for the non-musician a lucid demonstration of how musical variation works, and lovely to look at, too. I can’t recommend this enough.