Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Sonata op. 1 (1907/1908, rev. 1920) [10:54]
Leos JANACEK (1854-1928)
V mlhách (In the mists) (1912) [15:38]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sonata in B minor (1853) [31:10]
Dénes Várjon (piano)
rec. April 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2247 [58:00]
I have to admit to being something of a fan of Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon’s artistry, bearing in mind his contribution to the Romancendres recording which pairs the music of Clara Schumann and Heinz Holliger (see review), and also being an admirer of his accompaniments with Carolin Widmann of Schumann’s Violin Sonatas (see review). This is his first ECM solo recording and a fascinating recital programme of three masterpieces by Berg, Janáček and Liszt, the first two both being documented as having been inspired by Liszt.
Dénes Várjon is quoted as saying, “It is always highly interesting to find connections between composers, and bridges between epochs in musical history. In the mirror of other composers and periods, I begin to see new dimensions of works which I have performed, and this is especially the case when I play pieces by Ferenc Liszt. Even more strongly, I see him as a main figure of the current of music history. There are certain works by him I need to play and explore again and again - most importantly, his B minor Sonata. For all its rich texture, its great structure and its length, there is not one single note which is not a most important part of the whole.” Várjon has clearly thought long and deeply about all of the music on this fine recording, and the performances are nothing if not highly expressive and superbly executed.
This is the kind of release which has a ‘concept’ aura, and it is as much the combination of this repertoire which will attract as the individual performances. Berg’s Sonata No. 1 is an elusive work, poised between the height of late romantic expression and the blurring of harmonic stability which would result in the 12-note serial approach which became the pathway of escape for some composers in the 20th century. Várjon’s performance is rich and eloquent, and certainly competitive with other excellent performances such as that of Ronald Pöntinen on BIS-CD-1417, which is a tad more dynamic and hard-hitting compared with a more reflective and poetic view from Várjon. I’ve also always had an affection Glenn Gould’s 1958 CBS recording, but this is one of those pieces which I’ve found impossible to find a ‘perfect’ version on record. Suffice it to say that Várjon’s playing is truly excellent, though I didn’t find myself brought to an emotional frenzy by the intensity of the music in this case.
My favourite on this CD is Janáček’s In the mists. Várjon is alive to the composer’s extremes of mood and musical landscape, at once rocky and turbulent, the next moment ethereally calm. I particularly like Várjon’s ends of phrases in the opening Andante, serving up those resolutely non-resolving moments of transition with striking emphasis, expressing mood and emotion without exaggerated mannerism. This is of course a work which has been recorded often and superbly by a variety of Czech and other pianists, and Radoslav Kvapil’s performance which was once to be found on Unicorn Kanchana’s Anthology of Czech Piano Music (all 12 CDs on Alto ALC6001 and ALC6002) and can now be bought on Regis RRC1172. Rather perversely I’ve referred to a version on Musical Concepts MCS-ED-9021 (also Alto ALC 1127) which I’m not sure is the same as the Regis disc, but either way this shows how it is possible to inject a greater sense of fury into the music, heightening the extremes of emotion in a less well recorded but remarkably potent vision of the work. Várjon is excellent throughout, giving the piece plenty of character, but not quite chilling the bones as can be heard elsewhere. The beauty of his playing does give a magical atmosphere to the Andantino, and the final Presto is also very fine, though again perhaps not quite digging all of the anguish from the notes. ArcoDiva’s all-Janáček recording (see review) has two versions of this piece, one played on the composer’s own piano, so real fans of the work should give this as try as well.
Liszt’s Sonata in B minor has been recorded so often that it’s always going to be hard to follow numerous excellent and distinguished predecessors. My ears are still ringing with Garrick Ohlsson’s recording on the Bridge label (see review), and, while I’ll admit that other versions have done as much or more I was already becoming a little sceptical with Várjon’s dramatic scampering in and around the end of the second minute. The comparisons I made in the Ohlsson review stand, and I would alas have to put Várjon lower on the all-time pecking order, having also recently discovered the live and risky Terence Judd performance on Chandos CHAN 10004. This comparison won’t be a first choice for many people, but does show how it is possible to grab hold of and grip a listener for a white-knuckle ride which lasts from the opening note to the last. Várjon’s playing by no means disappoints on its own terms, but there are plenty of subtle moments which are given so much more in other versions - those little lines which tail away in the 6th minute for instance. There is a sense in which transitions are taken a little too literally, pedalling perhaps a little too heavy, technically demanding peaks attacked with robust reliability rather than the utmost musical finesse, and that feeling of impossibly superhuman climaxes achieved through inner transcendence.
With ECM’s typically high production standards and fairly analytical booklet notes by Paul Griffiths this is a fine release and one which will bring its own rewards. If your hankering is after greater potency in any one of the pieces in the programme then the advice might be to explore further, but as I have said, Dénes Várjon’s performances have much to offer and his expressive sense and poetry of touch is something worth experiencing. His interpretations are highly effective and securely uncontroversial, and indeed at times have that “lustre… that lifts everything he performs… into a state of newness” promised by the opening paragraph of the booklet text.
Dominy Clements
Highly intelligent, and with a sprinkling of lustre. 

Masterwork Index: Liszt's sonata in B minor