Direct from Nelson: Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon in singular, absorbing solo and duet piano music

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – piano duet and solo

Bach: Two Chorales transcribed by György Kurtág: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit and O Lamm Gottes unschuldig
Schubert: Lebensstürme in A minor, D 947
Debussy: Petite Suite
Beethoven: Sonata No 29 in B flat, Op 106 (Hammerklavier)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 17 February, 2:30 pm

This concert was, reportedly, arranged through a somewhat unorthodox arrangement between the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and the Waikanae society. I’d spent five days in Nelson and had heard Dénes Várjon playing about four times, including once with his wife Izabella. One of them included the Hammerklavier as well as the last sonata, Op 111; but the first three pieces in this recital were played after I left. I was delighted to hear them at Waikanae.

Bach was a major source of inspiration for contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág and he made several arrangements of arias from the chorales. I didn’t know these ones; and listening to these piano duet arrangements one could be forgiven for wondering who the composer was, as the early stages of both had an enigmatic character that really didn’t bring Bach to mind straight away. The sounds seemed influenced by at least late 19th century music: harmonically as well as in the pianists’ articulation and dynamics. But with the underlying Bachian melodies,  the music revealed such intense conviction and coherence, it slowly became clear that Bach was the unmistakable inspiration. In Gottes Zeit, the bass (Dénes) entered first and then Izabella with the treble part. Though the two pianists showed remarkable uniformity of rhythm and musical character, what astonished me was the way the primo and secondo parts had such distinct voices. In the second chorale, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, I was fascinated by the sound Izabella drew from the piano, almost as if she had secreted a rank of organ pipes in the piano, so pure and bell-like was the sound. In speaking with others who were also mesmerised by it, I gathered that it was achieved by keeping the key slightly, very sensitively depressed, holding the hammers in a certain position on the strings.

It was a beautiful performance that created a profoundly meditative spirit, with the most intriguing counterpoint. In both the pieces, the fascination lay in the profound sense of Bach’s presence throughout, even though so much was conspicuously of the 20th century.

Schubert’s Lebensstürme 
The duo’s playing of Schubert’s late Lebensstürme D 947 was driven by a single-minded determination to draw attention to contrasts and similarities between the Bach/Kurtág pieces and the Schubert; their request for no applause at the end of the Bach was clearly to highlight unexpected relationships that might enrich audience response to both. Their close juxtaposition certainly did that for me. At the most superficial level one could hear comparable spiritual and intellectual characteristics in both. Schubert’s abrupt call to attention with heavy opening chords might not have been the clearest Schubert signature, but the following lyrical episodes did clarify the matter; and certain dramatic passages, and some quite elaborate material in the development section suggested that Schubert had Beethoven’s more serious and intense piano pieces in mind.

There is speculation that this piece was the first movement of a planned sonata for two pianos, and the structure of the piece and weight of the music, especially the first arresting theme which returned several times, made that seem very likely. It was again a most authoritative and engaging performance.

Petite Suite 
Debussy’s Petite Suite is familiar, not so much in its original four-hands version, but in the various orchestrations.  I must say that as with many (most?) French piano pieces of the late 19th century, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, that got themselves orchestrated are more interesting, even exciting, in their original piano version.  The tip-toe dancing  in the second movement, Cortètge, and the quirky, forthright music in Ballet, seems so perfectly attuned to the piano, especially with all the weight or lightness and colour available when four hands are engaged.

Much of this renewed delight in original piano versions is the result of the delightful, infectious playing by this gifted and inspiring duet.

In the second half, Dénes Várjon was left alone to play Beethoven’s Op 106, the Hammerklavier Sonata. My reaction to this performance, in a different space, on a Fazioli piano rather than a Steinway, was similar in some ways, though I guess that the warmer, perhaps easier to achieve lyricism and clarity on this piano in this space removed a certain amount of what I described, inspiring words like ‘tumultuous’, ‘abandon’, ‘the wild character of this performance’, ‘unbridled power’, ‘rebellious’.

The speed, energy and power of the performance were here at Waikanae, and the precipitate changes of emotion and mood, dynamic contrasts from bar to bar, again held the audience spell-bound. The delicious toying with the listener’s conventional expectations were still there to surprise, for example, the witty petering out at the end of the Scherzo. And teasing, aborted gestures that keep you in their grip in the slow movement.

But the last movement seemed to recall best the impression of abandon, of ‘rough and tumble’, the unexpected (even though familiar) halt in the middle of the last movement, and the massive forays that command the keyboard from top to bottom, made this an exciting and draining performance, fully the equal of what I’d heard in Nelson.

And, as in Nelson, it was a sold-out recital that won huge applause.


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