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May 2003

Uri Caine
Concerto Koln: Diabelli Variations
Winter & Winter

With apologies to partisans of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Ludwig van Beethoven's 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli is the greatest set of variations ever written. Beethoven's opus begins with straightforward modifications of publisher Anton Diabelli's theme, moves on to outright mockery of the theme's banality, accelerates into a whirlwind of destructive energy, quotes the styles of past composers in an attempt to rebuild and then finally passes into variations on variations, now divorced from the theme completely, the music more exalted with each iteration.

This progression presents obvious possibilities for the adventuresome jazz player, and it should be no surprise that Uri Caine, whose postmodern funhouse interpretation of the Goldberg Variations (2000) shed new light on old music, should now turn his hand to Beethoven's opus. In this case, however, Caine gains the freedom to interpret not from relentless stylistic juxtaposition, but from a very old form: the concerto.

Before classical music became calcified by custom, the concerto was partially an improvisational form. The orchestra, of course, played a prewritten accompaniment, but the soloist could use the text as a jumping-off point for excursions and flights of fancy; in addition, a fully improvised cadenza allowed the soloist to showcase any previously unshowcased virtuosity. Here, Caine has ably arranged much of Beethoven's music for orchestra, giving himself the soloist's role. The Concerto Koln, a justly renowned period-instrument orchestra, handles the accompaniment duties, while Caine himself plays a gorgeous-sounding 1839 Erard fortepiano.

How does it work? Caine ranges freely over the music, with infectious brio, helped by the sparkling support of his backup band. He breezily inserts sneezes, snatches of ragtime and quotes from other Beethoven compositions into the musical fabric. His cadenza comes with the penultimate fugue, and it is truly an amazing cascade of notes and ideas.

But this performance, recorded in 2002, sounds like a tamed beast next to Caine's Goldbergs. The postmodern interpolations sound like ornaments rather than essential ingredients. The orchestration is ear-catching but serves Caine's plan more than Beethoven's music. Caine's interpretation never feels like something new so much as self-indulgent, extravagant riffing on this great work. True, Caine can make his riffing very interesting indeed, but it's hard to imagine that most music fans won't find a good recording of the original (William Kinderman on Hyperion, say) far more memorable than this enjoyable but inessential record.

Originally published in May 2003
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