Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon at Waikanae with enterprising programme, rich in Bartók

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Varjon – piano

Beethoven: Sonata in E minor, Op 90
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op 12
Liszt: Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort; Valse oubliée No 1; Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
Bartók: Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs, Sz 20; Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csik, Sz 35a; Sonatina, Sz 55 1; Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz 71

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 19 February, 2:30 pm

The first concert in the nine-concert Waikanae chamber music series neatly filled a hole in my piano recital experiences that the same programme would have provided in Nelson if I’d been there the previous Sunday. Varjon was one of this year’s stars at the biennial Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson (see my review date-lined 11 February).

He was hot news there and even though I heard him in various accompanying and ensemble roles such as in Brahms’s Piano Trio in B and his wonderful Piano Quintet, I was very glad to be able to hear him today. The Waikanae programme was the same. It opened with one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas that seems to be seriously out of its chronological order (1815). Op 90 is short, just two movements, and uses material that could almost be mistaken for Schubert on a sunny day (it was sunny!).

The programme note quoted Viennese reviews of its 1815 premiere, using words like ‘melodious’, ‘expressive’, ‘intelligible’. It proceeds quietly for a while, just occasionally punctuated by brief emphatic chords and a descending scale that marked it as Beethoven, sure enough. Varjon made imaginative and engaging use of varied rhythms and colourful dynamics, lending them discreet emphasis, and he charged it with subtle drama and a certain secretiveness.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op 12 (I’d rather wished he had played more Schumann at Nelson – the only piece I heard was the not very remarkable, late Märchenbilder for viola and piano, though he’d played Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, Op 73, before I got there). The collection consists of eight highly varied pieces, though their sharply contrasted character and tonality, and Varjon’s endlessly resourceful vision created a compulsively interesting sequence. The third piece Warum?, for example, ends unresolved while he teased us with a slightly prolonged wait for the following Grillen, which sort-of answered the question.  Aufschwung is quintessential Schumann and Varjon created an entertaining, rumbustious experience. And he made the seventh piece, Traumes Wirren into a truly fantastic high-wire experience. While the long – never too long – Ende vom Lied took the form of a minor ballade: stately, perhaps a bit weighty occasionally (and I had jotted a note wondering about the condition of the piano). But for me that splendid peroration is one of Schumann’s most poetic expressions – rather a conflation of the Eusebius and Florestan characters that Schumann created to characterise his moods.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Varjon’s homeland: Liszt and Bartók. He played three of Liszt’s late works, regarded by musicologists as precursors of the 20th century’s experiments with tonality and form. While the Valse oubliée and the Villa d’Éste fountains are familiar enough, and Varjon delivered performances that were poetic and restrained, the less known Sleepless! Question and answer (S 203), was a revelation of less familiar . The strange, agitated beginning expanded into a complex metaphysical question; while the answer was a plain, unaccompanied line in the right hand, soon modestly harmonised before returning to the plain enigmatic melody that ended on the dominant. It was music to still the persisting negative opinions of Liszt sceptics.

The four Bartók works too were a mixture of the known and the little known. Beginning with Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs, which might have been unfamiliar to me, at once they banished the notion, obviously ameliorated over the years, that Bartok mostly enshrines a somewhat unforgiving style of barbaric folk music. These tunes were intrinsically engaging and sensitively turned into pieces for the recital hall.

The Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csik, were distinctly lyrical, rhythmic, and I jotted down, ‘very singable by anyone who’d heard Varjon playing them’. Each very short, perfectly, pithily arranged. The Sonatina too is an attractive piece in three movements: Dudások (bagpipes), Medvetanc (Bear Dance) and Finale, while the recital ended with seven of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (alternative title: ‘Old Hungarian Dance Tunes’). Bartok does not necessarily consign these tunes to civilising treatment by the piano, and as I listened, the sounds of peasant instruments like the cimbalom came into my head.

Varjon’s programme had proved, for me at least, quite a revelation, putting a fairly wide, representative collection of Bartók’s Hungarian folk-derived music into our ears; they truly benefitted through being played in a chronological sequence (assuming the András Szőllősy – Sz – catalogue follows a chronological order).

There was a bigger than normal crowd in the hall, between 400 and 500 I’d guess; far more than the chamber music societies in Wellington or the Hutt Valley attract. Ticket price obviously has something to do with it, influenced by the cheaper Waikanae venue, though one might have thought Wellington, now using the cheaper St Andrew’s on The Terrace in the absence of the Ilott Theatre, would have been able to reduce their prices.


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