Olli Mustonen BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations

This is, no doubt about it, an alternative view of the Diabelli Variations. It starts with what sounds like an intentionally parodistic view of the theme, with manically pecking staccatos in the right hand and predictable surges in the left, rather in the manner of an overenthusiastic amateur. Soon, however, it’s apparent that this kind of thing is going to be the norm; it’s simply Olli Mustonen’s natural, iconoclastic mode of delivery. Imagine someone playing on a heated keyboard with sore fingertips, and you’ll have some idea of his habitual clipped articulation and almost paranoid reluctance to sustain chords and melodic notes for their full notated value. That’s quite effective for the subdued bouncing chords of Var. 2 or the burbling bass figuration in Var. 3, and it’s interesting to hear, say, the dolce e teneramente of Var. 8 menaced by proto-Brahmsian fulminations in the left hand. Var. 25 is another winner: never mind the legato, feel the leggermente. All too often though, Mustonen only succeeds in evoking a world of punk-haircut grotesques. Var. 5 struts in a goose-step, the silences in Var. 13 are perversely non-witty, Var. 18 snatches at phrases like a nervous bird, and so on. Var. 33 is yet another tease; and I’m talking about that sublimely transfigured Tempo di menuetto.
Creative friction between composer and interpreter is all well and good, and certainly more interesting than slavish adherence to the text. But I feel that flights of fancy of the kind the young Finn is fabulously equipped to offer work best from a more humane basis. Remove that and you create mere freakishness. For some, Mustonen’s world-class clarity and agility may override such objections, and others may be able to detect a Gouldian alternative agenda I’ve completely missed. For myself I felt I could have been listening to a fine pianist who for some reason despised the Diabelli Variations and wanted to send them up. Of the many fine available versions, Kovacevich’s continues to give me the greatest satisfaction.
The five C major and minor short pieces work quite well as an appendix, though with a possible 33 minutes to fill, it might have been even more fun simply to make a clean sweep of Beethoven’s C major piano miscellanea. Recording quality is superb. (Gramophone)

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