Top Ear

Mustonen Serves Beethoven’s Variations Well

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Jeremy Lee writes

Except for the Diabelli Variations, and perhaps the Eroica Variations, Beethoven’s other piano variations have not been particularly easy to find on disc:  collectors may be familiar with Brendel and Gould’s recordings, but otherwise they have been largely neglected by most pianists, even if they have their cycle(s) of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas to call their own.  Olli Mustonen, as far as I am aware, has only recorded a few of the late sonatas, but his disc of Beethoven’s Variations on Decca, a disc that has no doubt languished out of print, is one that is worth investigating and treasuring.

Mustonen, as I have mentioned in a previous review of his uneven Shostakovich/Alkan recital, has a particularly interesting quirk (or perversity, depending on how you view it) that makes his piano playing so distinctive:  an extreme clarity of touch, characterised by sparse use of pedal, extraordinarily short, attacked staccato playing, and inhumanly even and clear runs, not unlike Glenn Gould in the latter’s respect.  Whether this is to your taste is ultimately personal, because he treats virtually all passages in a piece of music with this sort of touch, and veritably smooth, legato playing of long-line melodies is somewhat compromised as a result.  Compared to Gilels’ (DG) sinewy linearity and golden, metallic touch, and Brendel’s (Philips) relaxed, genial approach, Mustonen’s playfulness and effortlessly tossed-off Eroica Variations may sometimes bring attention to itself, yet revels in this music’s Dionysian qualities (and let’s face it, the bass line is ridiculous anyway).

The other less-known pieces may not be on par with the spiritually exalted level of his sonatas, but they are lovely pieces all the same and deserve to be more widely heard.  His two variations on two arias from the opera La molinara composed by Giovanni Paisiello are simply lovely, while the variations on two English national songs “Rule Britannia” and ” God Save the King” are unfailingly interesting, especially to British people familiar with the tunes.  12 variations on a Russian dance and two variations on original themes (Op. 34 and the more popular WoO 80, its passacaglia writing and minor tonality reminding one of none other than Brahms 4) complete the picture.  Mustonen’s pianism throughout remains quirky and, in its own way, rather charming.

This disc is certainly not a complete survey of Beethoven’s piano variations, Diabelli conspicuously missing, but Mustonen would go later on to record it for RCA.  Mustonen would also complement this Decca disc with yet another Beethoven variations disc in 1996 for Decca, and that disc includes dances and Bagatelles as well, so if you love this disc, you will certainly want to check the Diabelli disc or the other Decca disc out, and vice (thrice?) versa.  The recording benefits from Decca’s beautiful-sounding piano sound.  If you like Mustonen’s style or are curious to investigate Beethoven’s piano works beyond his sonatas and bagatelles, this disc fits the bill nicely.


  • Album name:  Beethoven:  Piano Variations
  • Performers:  Olli Mustonen (piano)
  • Label:  Decca 436 834-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  77:01

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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