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De la nuit
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke op. 12 (1837) [27:32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit (1908) [22:55]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Im Freien (1926) [15:39]
Dénes Várjon (piano)
rec. 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
ECM ECM 2521 [66:06]

This is Dénes Várjon’s fourth appearance and his second solo album on the ECM label, following ‘Precipitando’ (review). His Schumann credentials have already been tested in a recording with Carolin Widmann of Schumann’s Violin Sonatas (review), and Várjon also contributed to Heinz Holliger’s Romancendres (review), inspired by the Schumann’s lost Romances. ‘De la nuit’ is another gorgeous sounding recital, and another sublime jewel in Várjon’s discography.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke op. 12 is set of eight “character pieces” that draws on the writings of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is peak Romanticism, written in a time that contact with his beloved Clara was restricted to secrecy and working directly from the wellspring of literature; following his own dictum that music should be “the far more spiritual poem, a creation of the poetic mind.” Virtuosity is woven into the nature and character of the music’s passions rather than for sparkling showmanship, and Várjon’s brilliance delivers exactly the tight kind of almost self-effacing transcendence in this recording. You take the skilful demands for granted, and are easily immersed in Schumann’s world, a world that in this case was much admired by Franz Liszt whose message to the composer was, “Your ‘Fantasy Pieces’ have captured my interest in an extraordinary way. I play them truly with delight, and Lord knows there are not many things of which I can say the same.”

The theme of literary associations is carried forward in Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which takes its inspiration from the eponymously named prose-poem verse collection by Aloysius Bertrand. Ravel’s stated “ambition was to express with notes what the poet says with words.” 70 years on from Schumann, the romantic connections are immediately apparent even if the atmosphere and language are entirely distinctive. Ravel’s impressionism speaks with directness, his virtuoso demands of the player once again in the service of music that is vividly descriptive. Várjon’s layering of melodic flow against beautifully weighted harmonic colours in the demonic mass of notes that make up the opening Ondine make for something rather wonderful. Le Gibet, described by Marion Pécher as “written-out motionless”, is all about dark atmosphere, superbly and potently conjured in this performance, while the final Scarbo, notoriously challenging to play and portraying a fiendish goblin or dwarf in what the Ravel described as a “caricature of romanticism”, flits and darts unsettlingly with looming and at times unexpected dramatic under and overtones.

Dénes Várjon is a native of Hungary and Bartók is a significant composer for him, representing the importance of national musical tradition and a blending of its distinctive flavours with new experiences and influences from abroad. Im Freien (Out of Doors) represents both Bartók’s strong adherence to folk instruments, songs and nature, as well as his own personal approach to piano technique, emphasising the instrument’s ‘truly expressive nature’ as a percussion instrument, as well as one capable of lyricism and wide ranges of moods. Dissonance and grit can be found here, but the descriptive through line from Schumann via Ravel is also strong. There are moments where the influence of Debussy can be felt, and if we were to take it further I’m sure Messiaen’s version of the natural world would feature.

Dénes Várjon has plenty of competition when it comes to the Schumann and Ravel works. Imogen Cooper on the Chandos label (review) finds Schumann’s poetry in a slightly more ruminating and expansive way in the slower movements, less hectic in the fast, but both players finding their own way into the expressive joys and dramas of the work as a whole. I certainly prefer Várjon to Abdel Rahman El Bacha in his set on the Triton label (review) for, while this has many fine qualities, I don’t find myself drawn in ‘beyond the veil’ of the piano into Ravel’s imagination. El Bacha’s accuracy has its own merits, but now seems a bit too straight-laced for my ears. Dénes Várjon’s Ravel can stand comparison with any of the great French pianists such as Jean-Yves Thibaudet (Decca) and Jean-Philippe Collard (EMI/Warner), and stamps his own character on all of the pieces in this carefully considered recital programme, without distancing us from the composer’s intentions. The recording is rich and deep and well up to ECM’s usual high standards, nicely resonant without becoming in any way swampy. Booklet notes by Jürg Stenzl are well written and informative, printed in German and English.

Dominy Clements


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