The Year That Never Was
Matei Varga (piano)
rec. 2021, Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, USA
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92258 
We have all been affected by the pandemic – which still hasn’t disappeared completely but hovers above us as a threatening black cloud – but the reactions varied, from paralysis to hectic over-activity. For Romanian pianist Matei Varga it came, in a way, as a relief. He says in the liner notes: ”I … felt liberated by the lack of schedules, appointments and the pressure to be productive – that horrid word which is killing our souls, slowly but surely. Instead I embraced seclusion and enjoyed the time off which was forced upon us. Yes, I did miss performing in front of a live audience and traveling to beautiful places, but I found that staying home, with my piano, offered me a better view towards my inner self and a chance to experience the joy of a new discovery. That was for me the Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona.”
Varga sees parallels between Lecuona and Chopin. Both were ‘salon virtuosos’ who excelled in the short forms and had a link to their native countries. Lecuona elevated Cuban music to classic status and was dubbed the Chopin of the Tropics and, to find a parallel with the third dominant composer in this programme, he was also a Cuban Gershwin. So these three composers form the core of this recital, to which is added a motley crowd of other composers, favourites of Matei Varga and spanning a period from baroque master Domenico Scarlatti to his young compatriot Andrei Tudor (born in 1983), who one day ‘Facebook Messengered’ a brand-new work, Rondo alla Crazy.
The main focus is on Lecuona (1896 – 1963), who was a charismatic pianist as well as a prolific composer, penning more than six hundred works, mostly based on Cuban folk music. He toured the world for many years and also founded a group, The Lecuona Cuban Boys, who reached world fame, even though they didn’t perform together with the founder. I have long had a liking for Lecuona’s music, and when I started reviewing for MusicWeb International almost 18 years ago, I had the good fortune to review a couple of CDs with his music. Thus, it was a pleasure to return to his music, although most of the pieces Varga plays here were new acquaintances for me. Lecuona’s music is far from forgotten and there is a rich supply of recordings, including collections of the composer’s own recordings and a complete series of his piano music with Thomas Tirino on BIS. Tirino is also represented on the present disc with a couple of pieces transcribed and arranged for piano. Andalucia, from Suite Española, is probably his best-known work, and it also gets the honour to open this recital. At first I thought he played it too fast, as it felt rushed, but when I checked with a couple of other recordings in my collection, the difference was only marginal: circa 20 seconds for a piece that takes 2½ minutes. The remaining nine pieces by Lecuona are just as charming – in particular I warmed to the five selections from 19th Century Cuban Dances, of which La Mulata and the virtuoso Al Fin Te Vi were the most attractive. The jazzy Danza Lucumi also a winner. I wouldn’t mind hearing a Matei Varga disc with an all-Lecuona programme in the near future.
Chopin’s contribution is more standard fare, even though the Trois Ecossaises, three miniatures, each just under one minute in length, were new to me. But the three Impromptus were welcome friends, well played, and the Revolutionary Etude offered three minutes of intense drama. Living nowadays in the US, Varga has adopted a nice feeling for Gershwin, just as he has for the Chopin pieces sprinkled in between Lecuona’s music. Beethoven’s immortal Für Elise, finely nuanced, was a surprising encore squeezed in between Gershwin and Lecuona, and then the two Scarlatti sonatas, played with a light touch, Tudor’s funny Rondo alla Crazy – a future encore classic – and Balakirev’s Spanish Melody, another little gem, sensitively played. Lecuona, who opened the programme, also gets the last word with two transcribed pieces, and rounds it off with the lovely Vals Azul.
There may be a thought behind the haphazard order of the pieces, and it certainly guarantees a very varied programme. Readers who appreciate an hour of easy-to-digest quality piano music – some of it a bit off the beaten track – should be deeply satisfied with this issue.
Ernesto Lecuona: Andalucia
Frederic Chopin: Trois Ecossaises, Op. 72 No. 3
George Gershwin: I Got Rhythm
Ludwig van Beethoven: Bagatelle in A minor Für Elise
Lecuona: Cuban Dances (selections)
Chopin: Impromptu No. 3, Op. 51 in G-flat major
Lecuona: Zamba Gitana (from La tierra de Venus) (transcribed and arranged by Thomas Y. Tirino)
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata K 380, in E major; Sonata K 135 in E major
Andrei Tudor: Rondo alla Crazy
Mily Balakirev: Spanish Melody
Chopin: Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 in C-sharp minor
Lecuona: Danza Lucumi (from Danzas Afro-Cubanos)
Chopin: Etude Op. 10, No. 12 (Revolutionary)
Gershwin: The Man I Love
Chopin: Impromptu No. 1 Op. 29 in A-flat major
Lecuona: Yo te quiero siempe, cancion (transcribed and arranged by Thomas Y. Tirino)
Vals Azul (from Lola Cruz) (transcribed and arranged by Matt Van Brink)