RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘As the music explores ever more bizarre reaches of contrast, so Uchida’s seemingly limitless resources faithfully serve the score’
David Fanning listens to Mitsuko Uchida’s first solo recording for almost a decade – a gripping account of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – with an increasing sense of astonishment
Beethoven Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op 120 Mitsuko Uchida pf Decca F 485 2731 (59’ • DDD)
Has Diabelli’s innocent theme ever been given such a sharp profile, I wonder? The grace notes are fractionally elongated, so that when we reach the triplet up-beats of Var 11 we pick up the affinity; there is a slight but clear caesura between the first two phrases (not on the repeat, so as to avoid any suspicion of mannerism); the off-beat sforzandos are emphasised and the down-beats phrased off to near inaudibility; the single piano notes in the second half are given a fraction of surrounding air, to excellently witty effect. The first variation is no less cannily sculpted, bringing out a mock-pomposo character: this time the first two phrases are slightly closer together than notated (first time only); the quaver up-beats are resolutely full-length and ‘philistinely’ equalised in dynamic force; the quaver rests in the second half are playfully varied.
No variation passes without some subtle illumination of timing, articulation or inner dialogue. How teasingly Uchida brings out the leggiermente of the second variation; how warm is her dolce in Vars 3 and 4, and how deliciously yielding their cadences; how lucid is her counterpoint in Var 4 and how ideally controlled its increase from piano to forte; how perfectly weighted are the dynamic contrasts in Var 5; how magnificently sturdy is the serioso Var 6, yet also how intricate is Uchida’s response to the twists and turns of the second half; how orchestrally she voices the sforzandos of Var 7 and how effective are the fractional delays she applies to some of them; how touchingly she allows the withdrawn dolce e teneramente of Var 8 to lean towards Schumann; how resilient are the acciaccaturas (as in the theme, fractionally prolonged) of Var 9, how scrupulous the dynamics and how deliciously varied in the repeat of the second half (is that a filled-out left-hand chord at the end – well, why not?).
/ D E C C A
P U M F R E Y
J U S T
Then Uchida takes a longer pause, to help articulate the broader structure of the piece and give the ear a chance to breathe (so to speak). And we are back with the triplet PHO T O G R A P H Y
12 GRAMOPHONE GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2022