BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Minor Op.13 “Pathetique”
LISZT – Petrarch Sonett No.104 “Pace non trovo” (from Annees de Pelerinage – Deuxième année: Italie)
BARTOK – Roumanian Dance Op.8a No. 1
MAHLER (arr. piano duo by Bruno Walter) Symphony No. 1 in D Major “Titan”
Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – solo and duo pianists
Waikanae Memorial Hall,
Sunday 11th February, 2024
The enterprising Duo Piano pair of Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon gave a moderately-sized but enthusiastic audience plenty of thrills in the opening programme of the 2024 Waikanae Music Society’s Concert Season, combining a first half of solo piano works with a most enticing novelty, a transcription for piano duet of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony in an arrangement made by one of the composer’s most ardent disciples and greatest interpreters, Bruno Walter.
The music of the Symphony and its performance here were, both for people like myself familiar with the orchestral version, and for those coming to the work for the first time, a revelation, judging from the reaction at the concert’s end of those who sat all around where I was situated – shouts of approval and exhalations of amazement of all kinds abounded, which must have gratified the two by then well-nigh exhausted players who had given their all over the best part of the previous hour!
No less captivating in content and variety was the concert’s first half, in effect a mini-solo recital by Dénes Várjon which featured works by Beethoven, Liszt and Bartok. Spanning over a century of keyboard innovation and romantic expression, Dénes Várjon brought to each of the three pieces a powerhouse technique, a romantic sensibility and a neo-ethnic awareness of rediscovery which underlined both the music’s contemporary and on-going importance and significance.
Though Beethoven’s Op.13 “Pathetique” Sonata would have sounded even more revolutionary to both contemporary and present-day ears if played on an instrument of the composer’s time, Várjon’s delivery of the opening movement splendidly “threw down the gauntlet” to our sensibilities with that wonderfully black-browed opening C Minor chord and their successors – his playing reminded me of the impact I well remember of hearing my first-ever recording, over fifty years ago, of that music played by Paul Badura-Skoda, and being knocked sideways as a result!
I particularly enjoyed the player’s going right back to the music’s Grave opening with the exposition repeat, rather than merely reiterating the allegro, which I’d previously heard only New Zealand pianist Stephen de Pledge do in concert. Something else I thought particularly striking in Várjon’s performance was his “playing” of the silences during the Grave sequences a matter, I felt, of giving the pauses their full resonance, so that each new note was allowed to coalesce in the wake of the previous one. In all, the first movement was splendidly done.
I’m sure that even Frederic Chopin, who had little time for Beethoven’s music, would have been charmed by Várjon’s playing of the beautiful, nocturne-like Adagio cantabile which followed – the player’s touch, while having a finely-sculptured quality still evidenced plenty of variety and pliability, producing a living, breathing sense of line. Then, from the second subject’s wistfulness rose a passionately-wrought archway through which we were heart-stoppingly taken, and then returned to the Adagio, our trajectories a tad enlivened, but reclaiming a dream-like “dying fall’ at the end.
From strength and then sensibility, the music turned to whimsy and caprice in the final movement, with playfulness aplenty between the hands, punctuated by the occasional sforzando – a wonderful “splurge-like” clash of notes at the top of one upward run, all adding to the excitement! Towards the end Várjon’s playing brought the music’s energies almost to boiling-point, with everything suddenly tumbling over and downwards; but no bones were broken, as a quick inspection revealed before a final chortle brought the rumbustion to an end! – all thoroughly engaging and enjoyable!
Franz Liszt set three Sonnets by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (Nos. 47, 104 and 123), firstly for voice and piano, and then as solo piano versions in the second suite of his Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – his Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy). More recent research into the poet’s life and output has renumbered those sonnets differently to that of Liszt’s original titles, with the latter’s “Petrarch Sonnett No.104 – Pace non trovo – appearing as No.134 in some editions that include other “ballades, songs and snatches” by the poet. Whatever the case, Liszt’s treatment of this Sonnet is a masterpiece, whether in, as here, solo piano form, or in other versions for voice and piano.
Whether the impulses were grand and tumultuous or tender and thoughtful, Várjon’s playing of this work vividly encapsulated the composer’s richly varied set of responses to the poet’s heartfelt words, from the impassioned opening – “I find no peace, but for war am not inclined…” -through the gamut of emotion – “Love has me in a prison which he neither opens nor shuts fast….” – to the ending’s eloquent resignation – “…to this state I am come, my lady, because of you….”, the pianist “placing” those exquisite high notes near the end as the work’s true climax, and the remainder being as mere echoings. After hearing this I should have liked to have had him play the whole of the Italian Deuxième année Book……..
A treat of a different order, however, was in store, with the first of Bartok’s Op.8a Roumanian Dances for solo piano, written (1910) at around the time he was extensively exploring Eastern Europe compiling collections of folk music. This rhapsodic music used native rhythms (a “galumphing’ opening) and themes (bagpipe-like snippets of melody) to launch and establish the piece, with Várjon bringing beautifully into being a central, grandly resonating lyrical section with a wistful epilogue. The dance’s opening returned, this time accelerating to a wilder, more percussive climax with plenty of foot-stamping before a grand peroration presented the main theme once again – the music then “plays” with the melodic snippets as if someone might be swatting at a buzzing fly which cheekily evades its fate and has the last word! Hugely entertaining!
The Mahler Symphony was of an entirely different order, its many moods and evocations giving tongue to the composer’s famous statement regarding the nature of a symphony – “It is like the world!” he once declared to fellow-composer Jean Sibelius – “It must contain everything!”. Had one little or no idea of the programme of this work one still had sufficient variety of impulse, colour and texture to readily imagine a narrative or grand design over the work’s four movements, themselves further dissected into contrasting sequences which added unceasing interest to the discourse. Várjon and his duo-partner-wife Izabella Simon took us right inside the music’s fantastical world from the very beginning, the opening movement a kind of evocation of nature’s awakening, and (by use of themes used in a previous song-cycle, “Songs of A Wayfarer”) a traveller’s experience of passing through the natural world’s manifold beauties and energetic irruptions, to a joyful and vigorous climax.
Each of the three remaining movements had a very specific character – the second movement’s country-dance atmosphere (known as a “Ländler”) was vigorously portrayed, and further contrasted by a more lyrical Trio, most evocatively realised by the duo pair, while the spookily atmospheric third movement Funeral March (with its minor-key use of the famous “Frere Jacques” theme) here gave me the utmost pleasure, Izabella Simon as the “primo” player beautifully and piquantly bringing out the melodies, their essences underpinned by her partner’s “secondo” portrayal of the somewhat macabre funeral cortege rhythms. I particularly enjoyed the pair’s bringing out of the bitter-sweetness in this movement’s Trio, with its quotation of a song from Lieder Eines fahrenden Gesellen, “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”).
Perhaps the most challenging of the work’s movements was the Finale, which the programme-note-writer called “the longest and most dramatic”. Mahler was to replicate the “bolt of lightning” opening of this movement in his Second Symphony’s finale as well, but in none of the other symphonies do the finales begin so cataclysmically. Here, Simon and Várjon threw themselves almost bodily into the fray, and wrestled their way to a mid-movement climax of sorts, only to have the music suddenly lose its nerve and change key, modulating upwards and into a kind of “no-person’s land!” Undaunted, the pair bent their backs to the struggle once again (the effort was excitingly palpable for all of us, throughout!) and flung the fanfare figures upwards and outwards once again – and were rewarded when the music’s goal of a triumphal D major was sighted, prepared, driven towards – and sustained! As I wrote at the outset of this review, the achievement was greeted with all due acclaim, the kind of thing which sustains a memory for a long while to come. Bravo, indeed!