by Nick Stubblefield
Serendipity first introduced me to Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon. A friend of mine had deeply treasured some recordings of the Chopin Nocturnes when he was a kid, but only within the past few months identified the pianist, who was not credited on those recordings. It was Várjon. When the esteemed pianist announced his performance at Carnegie's Zankel Hall, naturally, my friend and I jumped at the chance to see him. A pianist with sublime technique and a broad range of interests, Várjon treated us to selections from Chopin, Haydn, Schumann, and Leoš Janáček.
Performances of Haydn, when handled without extreme care, have in the past come across to me as dry and lifeless. Varjon's interpretation, demonstrating clear intention and thoughtfulness, approached Haydn's Sonata in E Minor with grace and tenderness. His touch was light and airy, and it elevated the work with the necessary weightlessness.
The first half of the concert closed with Robert Schumann's beloved work for solo piano, Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17. A fast and powerful series of left-hand flourishes open the number, tapering off into gentler, melodic territory, then back again. This work, unlike Hadyn's Sonata, is hard to predict. A work like Schumann's would appeal to a classical pianist -- the technical demands are high, and always in flux. It was an audience pleaser at Zankel Hall, and Várjon poured an infectious energy and fun into his performance.
Next up were Leoš Janáček's Selections from On the Overgrown Path. The Moravian composer's works sounded less technically-demanding than the other pieces on the program. The selections -- pleasant, even pastoral at times -- showcased Várjon's mature restraint, as well as his attention to detail and knack for clean melodic lines.
The program closed with selections from Frédéric Chopin. They included a Ballade, two Mazurkas, a Nocturne, and a Scherzo. Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1 in this pianist's hands was stunning. With uncanny finesse, Várjon lifted the melody out of its piano texture and let it float above, nearly creating two distinct instrumental parts. His passion for the Chopin works was readily apparent.
In a thrilling encore, Várjon dynamited the hall with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Rondo capriccioso." More than a toe-tapper, it was a crowd-pleasing performance from a true master of his craft, and came dangerously close to inducing dancing in the aisles.