Recording of the Month
De la nuit Dénes Várjon
‘Dénes Várjon plays with shining space and grace, favouring an objectivity that’s never detachment’
Schumann: Fantasiestücke; Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit; Bartók: Im Freien
Dénes Várjon (piano)
ECM 2521 63.17 mins
Dénes Várjon is the latest Apollo among pianists, sharing a place in the pantheon with the similarly oriented Nikolai Lugansky. Both play with shining space and grace, favouring an objectivity that’s never detachment. Lugansky’s special transformations have largely been reserved for Rachmaninov; Várjon sets the seal at the start here on similar credentials in Schumann. ★e impressed in the composer’s violin sonatas with Carolin Widmann on an earlier release, but now he has the imaginative stage for himself. And how mysteriously that imagination can shine in the ★offmanninspired Fantasiestücke
(Fantasy Pieces), where feeling needs to be ever-present but transcendent, the constant shifts of mood apparent without any obvious changes of gear.
Várjon moves swiftly between numbers, joining the puzzle-pieces without ever giving us the complete picture. With Schumann, it’s never quite there; that’s the point. Elusive intelligence makes its subtle impression in the opening ‘Des Abends’ (In the Evening): the deceptively simple seeming stepwise descents and ascents can come across as repetitive, but an air-treading pulse allows for magic on each refrain.
The sequence has nightpictures at the heart of the Schumann and of Bartók’s
Im Freien (Out of Doors), with the central panel of the three-composer triptych entirely devoted to the infinite nocturnal variety of Ravel’s
Gaspard de la nuit. Both Schumann and Bartók in their time approved extraction of individual numbers in their sequences, but there’s no doubt that Várjon’s connecting intelligence makes each set as a whole indispensible. No wonder, given this reading, that Schumann was proudest of ‘In der nacht’, with its miraculous but seemingly natural modulations. Its enigmatic turbulence sits easily here between the caprices of ‘Grillen’ and ‘Fabel’, meaningless without an interpreter of Várjon’s unpredictability.
In the Ravel, the initial difficulty is in striking a supernatural balance between the droplets through which the soulfulness of the waternymph Ondine emerges and the poignant melodic phrases. The supreme example in transcendent clarity of articulation is Idil Biret; Várjon’s special magic, however, is reserved for the moment when just a single line is heard, eerie
An unremittingly bewitching programme and perfectly engineered
in a greeny-blue spotlight.
‘Le Gibet’ (The Gallows) is hypnotism through the most beautiful of keyboard and recorded sounds; ‘Scarbo’, Ravel’s ferocious version of Robin Goodfellow, may not be as tempestuous a troublemaker as some here, but remains another creature of the mysterious night.
The low bass and high dynamic level of Bartók’s opening piece allow Várjon finally to let rip, but again there’s a poise which probes the heart of each al fresco sketch with due consideration. Not surprisingly, the night music with its birdsong and cricket calls is the heart of this sequence.
This is an unremittingly bewitching programme and perfectly engineered; I can’t wait to hear Várjon live, extending beyond the hour’s-worth here. PERFORMANCE ★★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★
Keyboard magician: Várjon recording in the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Italy