Dénes Várjon: Precipitando (ECM New Series 2247)



Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following his traversals of programs by Robert Schumann (New Series 2047) and Heinz Holliger/Clara Schumann (New Series 2055), Dénes Várjon returns to ECM with his first solo recital. Recorded in the pristine acoustics of the Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera in Lugano, Switzerland, Precipitando documents a new level of interpretive power from the Hungarian pianist.


If the album’s title, a music term meaning “rushing” or “headlong,” is realized anywhere, it is in the concluding b-minor Sonata of 1853 by Franz Liszt, with whom Várjon’s intimate familiarity is obvious from the start. Dark beginnings breed a full-blown thesis statement to almost overwhelming effect, yet Várjon handles a technically demanding interweaving of poetry and prosody with especial care. Because passages of quietude are relatively short-lived in this sonata, they tend to feel ominous whenever they do occur, fighting the invitation of descending motifs toward hope of light. Each such eclipse gives way to the diamond rings of Liszt’s dramatic reveals and, ultimately, to a shining, heavenly ladder.

At the beginning of the program we have Alban Berg’s Sonata op. 1 (1907/08, rev. 1920). Theodor Adorno called it his “apprentice piece,” as it was written under Arnold Schoenberg’s tutelage and bears the stamp of that teacher’s attention to detail. Although intended to be an example of traditional sonata form, after completing the single movement of which it is now composed, Berg (read: Schoenberg) found it to be complete. Like the Liszt, it is in b minor, but wanders into chromatic alcoves wherever it can. Also like the Liszt, it makes a torrent of a trickle and finds balance in the occasional reflection, sailing an ocean of tough-skinned lyricism toward delicate shores. A notably intense feeling of tactility cries out from Várjon’s reading.

Leoš Janáček’s V mlhách (In the mists) of 1912 makes its second appearance on ECM, following an interpretation by András Schiff (New Series 1736). Where Schiff’s mists are diffuse and autumnal, Várjon’s curl in the oncoming light of a spring dawn. In less uncertain terms, Schiff teases out the darkness in the light, while Várjon emphasizes the light in the darkness. It’s a bold and effective move, considering that these melancholy pieces tend to be associated with a composer thrown by conflict. Particularly memorable here are the arcing Andantino and final Presto, the resolve of which the pianist tenderizes with open eyes.

As a performer, Várjon is distinguished by his command of dynamics. At his fingertips, pianissimos are dreams and fortes are destructions. He is particularly adept at stalking the piano’s lower register, from which he elicits a rare fullness of clarity and in the soil of which he finds the harmonic roots of all three pieces here tangled in secret.

(To hear samples of Precipitando, click here.)

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