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The Year That Never Was
Matei Varga (piano)
rec. 2021, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview SONO LUMINIS DSL-92258 
I fully expect that future generations will look back at the last few years with bemusement- what was this Pandemic that everyone kept going on about? I would imagine that just about every field of human endeavour will bear traces of its influence. In terms of classical music, we have had lots of very serious, sometimes overly serious, existential meditations on what it all means. This present album is a rather different kind of response but none the less welcome for all that – not least because it arrives just as we hopefully pulling away from the malign shadow of Covid 19.
Matei Varga has said that all the music on this album is music that brought him joy and lifted his mood during those many dark months and that mood is apparent from the burst of Caribbean sun with which the album opens. Quite a few musicians have made musical discoveries during the enforced down time of lockdown and Varga’s is the Cuban composer, Ernesto Lecuona. Rather than give us an entire disc of the so called “Cuban Gershwin”‘s music, Varga weaves a diverse and largely successful programme around select cuts of his work. I think this is wise not just on account of Lecuona’s relative obscurity. For the general listener, such as myself, an all Lecuona recording might well have been too much of a good thing.
On first listen, I felt I wanted sharper rhythms in this music but as I got to know the pieces I was won over not just by Varga’s evident affection for the music but by his more laidback manner. The rhythms are taut when they need to be but at heart this is music to dance to.The second of the Cuban dances included shows real brilliance and Varga plays it with great panache but the mood generally is more that of a sultry Caribbean night. Lecuona is a minor talent and happily Varga doesn’t weigh the music down with too much import.
In filling out the programme, Varga went back to some old favourites revisited during the enforced lockdown down time. Giving Für Elise a makeover might seem like a good idea but I found it didn’t really fit in terribly well with the prevailing salon mood. Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu on the other hand is given a splendidly glowering outing that anchors things with just the right amount of gravitas. I Got Rhythm is revealed as an American cousin of the Cuban music in Varga’s nonchalantly relaxed hands. I wasn’t as bowled over by the one contemporary piece included, the Rondo alla Crazy by his Romanian compatriot, Andrei Tudor, as Varga seems to have been but there is no doubting that its unbuttoned manner suits the mood of the programme as a whole.
Varga writes in the booklet that accompanies this release that he selected music that displayed national characteristics. I’m not sure if Scarlatti is included on account of Spanishness or Italianess but I did relish the way the snapping rhythms echoed those in the pieces by Lecuona. Unlike Für Elise, the two sonatas included here fitted in nicely.
This is meant to be music making to revive the mood and all I can say is: Mission accomplished! If the combined assault of war, inflation and a post Covid world are getting too much for you, I can enthusiastically prescribe a course of this joyous disc.
Previous review: Göran Forsling Contents Ernesto Lecuona (1895 - 1963)
Andalucía (from Suite Espańola) Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849)
Trois Ecossaises, Op 72 No 3 George Gershwin (1898 - 1937)
I Got Rhythm Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Bagatelle in A minor (WoO59) “Für Elise” Ernesto Lecuona
XIXth Century Cuban Dances (selections) Frederic Chopin
Impromptu No 3,Op 51in G-flat major Ernesto Lecuona (arr.Thomas Y. Tirino)
ZambraGitana, from“LatierradeVenus” Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757)
Keyboard Sonata K380 in E major
Keyboard Sonata K135 in E major Andrei Tudor (b. 1983)
Rondo alla Crazy Mily Balakirev (1837 - 1910)
Spanish Melody Frederic Chopin
Fantasie-impromptu Op 66 in C-sharp minor Ernesto Lecuona (1895 - 1963)
Danza Lucumi, from “Danzas Afro-Cubanas” Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849)
Etude Op 10, No 12 in C minor (The Revolutionary) George Gershwin (1898 - 1937)
The Man I Love Frederic Chopin
Impromptu No 1, Op 29 in A-flat major Ernesto Lecuona
Yo Te Quiero Siempre, Canción (arr. Tirino)
Vals Azul, from “Lola Cruz”(arr.Matt Van Brink)