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De la Nuit
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke Op 12 [27.32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit [22.55]
Béla BARTÓK (1881 -1945)
Im Freien [15.39]
Dénes Várjon (piano)
rec. 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
ECM NEW SERIES 2521 (4817003) [66.06]

Hungarian pianist, Dénes Várjon, is a former winner of the Geza Anda International Piano Competition and this is his second solo recording for ECM. In this recital he presents “three worlds of poetic fantasy” by three very different composers.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke is a set of eight character pieces which were inspired by the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Schumann composed the pieces with the characters of Florestan and Eusebius in mind and a number of the pieces unite these two sides of the composer’s personality. Várjon conjures up Schumann’s “gentle picture of dusk” in the opening ‘Des Abends’, which is played with enormous sensitivity. He contrasts that in a very arresting way with the impulsive impetuosity of ‘Aufschwung’, bringing the composer’s manic mood shifts and schizoid personality very clearly into view. The gentle questioning of ‘Warum?’ is beautifully handled but Várjon plays around with the rhythm a little too much in ‘Grillen’ and the piece sounds mannered. ‘In der Nacht’ has an unsettled brooding quality and Várjon imbues the central section with gorgeous colours. ‘Traumes Wirren’ makes cruel demands on the weaker fingers of the right hand and I would have welcomed crisper articulation and cleaner definition from Várjon. ‘Ende vom Lied’ builds into a joyous celebration of the composer’s love for Clara before the feelings of anxiety return.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit was written in 1908 and the three movements are based on macabre poems by Aloysius Bertrand. It is one of the most technically demanding pieces in the solo piano repertoire. I have rather mixed feelings about this performance by Várjon. There is some highly imaginative tone painting in ‘Ondine’, where the dangerous seductive allure of the water nymph is compelling. However, the textures in the right hand are a little uneven and at various points one is too conscious of Várjon negotiating the technical difficulties. ‘Le Gibet’ is a very disturbing poem, depicting a dead body swinging on a gibbet while a bell tolls in the distance. Várjon’s performance lacks dramatic tension and somehow softens the very stark macabre scene depicted in the poem. ‘Scarbo’ is a highly virtuosic depiction of a shape- shifting goblin which flits and pirouettes around the room. Várjon expertly negotiates the daunting technical demands of the piece but his performance is a little safe and the night terrors are never really unleashed at the climactic points in the movement.

Várjon concludes his recital with Bartók’s Out of Doors suite, which the composer wrote in the ‘piano year’ of 1926 together with his Piano Sonata and First Piano Concerto. The first and last pieces in the set had rhythmic punch and I particularly enjoyed the way Várjon whipped up excitement in ‘The Chase’ with its left hand ostinato and repeated notes. The imitation of bagpipes was skilfully handled in ‘Musettes’, while the meandering lines of ‘Barcarolla’ were nicely shaped. Bartók’s nocturnal world of insect noises and peasant flutes were evoked in a highly atmospheric way in ‘Night’s Music’.

Overall, there is some very fine playing by Várjon in the Schuman and the Bartók although I was less convinced by his performance of the Ravel. While he certainly captures the mercurial moods of Schumann in Fantasiestücke, other performers such as Richter, Perahia or McCawley bring out more of the Romantic poetry. Várjon’s performance of Gaspard is atmospheric but he is no match for the peerless technical brilliance of Michelangeli or Argerich in this great pinnacle of the piano repertoire. The performance of Out of Doors was for my money the best of the three works on this recording although I prefer the visceral excitement which Kocsis brings to this work.

Robert Beattie

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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