I approached this recording with some trepidation, not to say some slight dread in view of the playing time. Given that the average time taken over this extraordinary piece is around fifty minutes what was Christina Bjørkoe doing, taking over seventy minutes? Having listened and having read what I feel are pretentious sleeve-notes I am at a complete loss to answer adequately. This is the Diabelli Variations but not as we know them.
The idea of the Diabelli Variations came in 1819 from composer-publisher Anton Diabelli. He asked the leading composers around Vienna to each compose a Variation on a theme he’d written. Beethoven, being Beethoven wrote thrity-three. Ever since then there have been inevitable comparisons with Bach’s Goldberg Variations
but I find, with the younger work, much wit and humour. Those features are, in the main, sadly lacking here.
There is a recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony from the late 1960s conducted by an aged Otto Klemperer where he extended the timing by a similar percentage. A reviewer described that recording as hearing the New Philharmonia going through hell. Well if you want a similar experience this disc is for you. As positives, Christina Bjørkoe is clearly a pianist of some note and the recording quality is first rate. I have spared the reader a breakdown of the variations, partly because there seemed to be a lack of variety. The pianist seems, to me, to have missed the point.
Casting this recording aside the newcomer to this piece has many fine recordings to chose from. My collection includes versions by Claudio Arrau, Murizio Pollini, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviatoslav Richter. Alfred Brendel has his many admirers and recorded the Diabelli several times. Despite much admiration for him as a Man and a Musician I find his playing too abrasive. Stephen Kovacevich has also made two well-regarded recordings and several more are reviewed in these pages.
Sadly my initial concerns about this recording were confirmed. With regret this CD must be put down as a miscalculation, which is a shame in the light of the pianist's obvious expertise.
David R Dunsmore
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