Várjon’s Thrilling Beethoven Concerti

cover - HCD32757-59

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerti Nos. 1-5 / Dénes Várjon, pno; Concerto Budapest; András Keller, cond / Hungaroton HCD 32757-59

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon. a pupil of Sándor Falavi and the well-known György Kurtág, is a great admirer of the late Annie Fischer, whose concerts thrilled Hungarians for 40 years. He is also a firm believer that Beethoven needs to be played and conducted from the gut, not played “prettily” like Mozart or Haydn. “This is a kind of musical material that will not surrender to the pianist easily and therefore should not be oversimplified. If a musical interpretation does not involve any risks, it will not make a lasting impression on the audience,” he is quoted as saying on the back cover of this marvelous set. And I agree with him.

Following his own recommendation, Várjon takes risks aplenty in these concerti, yet he could still pull back to produce lovely, melting playing in the slow movements. I also daresay that there is something of Artur Schnabel in him: the somewhat dry sound which stems from very little use of the sustain pedal, and that, too, comes close to the descriptions we have of Beethoven’s own playing. Every note in the fast movements sounds as if it was etched in stone with a cold chisel and a hammer, and that is as it should be. This is NOT music that is supposed to flow by your ears smoothly and evenly. It is visceral, from-the-gut music.

Varjón was 47 and already a seasoned pro with considerable experience behind him when this set was released in 2015, yet it got mixed reviews from the British critics—who, as we all know, are the only great arbiters of musical taste in the world. The BBC Music magazine loved it, whereas Gramophone carped constantly about every perceived foible. His hands are unbalanced; he favors the let over the right. He is too “brutal” and not “smooth enough” at times. And on and on and on. But as soon as I heard it, I realized that this was THE Beethoven Concerto cycle I had been dreaming about for years: a sort of hyper-Alfred Brendel approach combined with a conductor and orchestra that go for the jugular in each and every concerto. (Yes, Gramophone also complained about Concert Budapest, saying it was “competent rather than first-rate” and complaining of the “harsh” sound.)

But the bottom line is that we have no idea how Beethoven himself really played the piano, except from the few first-hand accounts, and all of them describe Beethoven as a ferocious tiger at the keyboard, one whose piano could scarcely contain the “pounding” he gave it. This also describes Várjon’s approach in these concerti. And folks, especially those of you in the HIP movement, orchestras back then tended towards the scrappy side. Which isn’t to say that Concerto Budapest is so scrappy that their playing sounds coarse. They’re just not the plush, manicured sound of the LSO or the Philharmonia Orchestras. I particularly loved the way Keller emphasizes the accents in the last movement of the first concerto, and in the second he combines with Várjon to give the most thrilling performance of that much-maligned concerto I’ve ever heard. Details are suddenly brought out in such a way that you think to yourself, “Huh! I’ve never heard that before!”—yet when you check the score, there they all are.

We need also remember that British listeners, particularly Londoners, prefer smoothness of approach to any real visceral drama in their performances. Just look at what they’ve done to Valery Gergiev since he took over the London Symphony: he’s morphed from one of the most exciting conductors in the world to a bland lamb. It’s what they like. Remember that half of the London critics also slammed Toscanini when he appeared with the BBC Symphony in the 1930s. The only reason he had some support in that city was because the Italian conductor had become quite friendly with Ernest Newman and Sir Donald Tovey, and both of them—very highly respected by fellow-Britons—acknowledged that Toscanini was, indeed, a musical genius of the first order.

Gramophone felt that Várjon’s effectiveness ended with the first two concerti; they didn’t like the headlong rush given to the last three, but I sure did. The tempi are brisk but not manic and the phrasing, though exciting and well-detailed, is by no means brutal. When Várjon enters in the first movement of the third, he adopts the same staccato attack and volume that the orchestra had just played, and that is how it should be. And what a wild cadenza he plays!

The first movement of the Concerto No. 4 is just a shade less relaxed and “dreamy” than you usually hear it; even Rudolf Serkin with Toscanini was a bit more relaxed than this; but to be perfectly honest, I prefer it played at this pace. This is similar to the way I heard André-Michel Schub play it in person with the Cincinnati Symphony back in the late 1970s, when they were conducted by Walter Susskind, and I’ve always preferred a slightly-more-pressed tempo. With that being said, Várjon flubs a note in his first keyboard run after his entrance, but again—without risk-taking, you don’t really have Beethoven. Personally, I could find nary a fault with the “Emperor” Concerto, though again, the Gramophone critic didn’t like it.

Quite a while back I wrote an article proclaiming the Rudolf Serkin-Eugene Ormandy recordings of these concerti to be the best. They are still outstanding in my mind as a “home ground” set of the music, but if you want to get a bit closer to the way Ludwig himself probably played them, this is it. Oh, how I wish that Naxos had used this set in their Beethoven Complete Edition boxed set!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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