DÉNES VARJON Piano Recital
25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (8 June 2018)
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 11 June 2018 with the title "Two halves blend harmoniously".
In its 25th year of existence, the Singapore International Piano Festival still throws up surprises in the choice of artists and programmes. Very often, the lesser-known of pianists give the most interesting and satisfying recitals. Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, perhaps better known for his chamber music collaborations, offered such a marvellous programme with two very different halves.
The first was filled with multiple short pieces, strung together like a pristine necklace. Among the pearls were Six Bagatelles (Op.126) by Beethoven, disparate and variegated miniatures which sounded lovely in Várjon's hands. His silken touch, aided by generous pedalling, ensured there was never a less than glowing moment. The fourth Bagatelle, with a rustic central section recalling the drone of bagpipes, provided a clue to the next group of pieces.
Várjon's selection of 13 shorts from Bartok's For Children was played with such disarming charm and acute sensitivity to colour and shade. Although simple in form and thematic material, these draw mostly from folk music and dances, thus filled with unexpected and piquant harmonies. Similarly, his eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs opened with unadorned melodies, soon gained a life of their own with dissonances piling up progressively for a heady close.
In between these was a single extended work, the Elegy No.2 which revealed Bartok to be the rightful successor to the late music of Franz Liszt, and the logical continuation of his idiom. Built up from a sequence of chromatic notes, this astonishing 8-minute-long work – both impressionist and modernist - was the glittering, multi-faceted, gem-studded pendant of the said necklace.
The second half was devoted to the music of the night. And for the pianist, there are few works as terrifying as Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. The hushed opening tremolandos in Ondine could have been more evenly spread. Perhaps this was to be the mythological water sprite's restless spirit and ultimately deadly intent being revealed early in the game.
More haunting were the incessant tolling of distant bells with repeated B flats in Le Gibet, a macabre scene from the gallows framed by the setting sun. The knocked-kneed scamperings of Scarbo completed the Gothic horror triptych, all wrapped up in a reading that was both outwardly virtuosic yet finely nuanced.
Two Chopin Nocturnes (Op.27 No.1 and Op.70 No.1) provided aural balm, contrasting the dark and smouldering with the melancholic and nostalgic. The concluding work was Chopin's Scherzo No.1 in B minor with its crashing opening chords and tumultuous upheavals, but where's the night music? A soothing Polish lullaby Sleep, Little Jesus was its soft centre, played with much affection and tenderness.
There were two encores, first with Bartok's Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District, an offshoot of the first half's bucolic revelry, and Of Foreign Lands and Peoples from Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood). Simply delightful.