Passionate Sacerdote: Vassilis Varvaresos in Recital

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Performing for the Steinway Society, the Bay Area, pianist Vassily Varvaresos concluded an already brilliant recital at the De Anza College Visual and Performing Arts Center, Saturday, October 17 with encores by Liszt and Gershwin. After receiving a certificate of recognition from the Hellenic Society of San Francisco, Varvaresos offered the Gershwin encore, a particularly electric improvisation on “Summer Time” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Previously, he had treated us to an astonishing rendition of Liszt’s Paganini Etude, “La Campanella,” rife with difficult repeated notes and grueling stretches of fifteenths and sixteenths. If Varvaresos suggested Van Cliburn reborn – given those colossally long, fleet fingers – his Liszt brought reminded us of the demonism we associate with Gyorgy Cziffra.

Music by Schumann, Chopin and Rachmaninoff comprised the main course of the evening, which confirmed Varvaresos’ commitment to the Romantic ethos. In his opening remarks, Varvaresos spoke of his affection for Schumann, and then performed a poised, sensitive version of the familiar 1839 Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18. Essentially a rondo, the work had Varvaresos’ indulging the Eusebius, or poetic, side of Schumann’s nature, introspective, intimate and nostalgic for the self-enclosed world of the dream. The occasional march-like rhythm that intrudes into this rarified atmosphere derives from the composer’s penchant for Märchen, the world of magical fairy tales. Just as his later reading of Kinderszenen would bask in pregnant silences and fermatas, Varvaresos addressed the periodic structure of the Arabesque, as he would also allow a respectful distance for both Traumerei and Der Dichter spricht. Bent over the keyboard, rapt in the affects of his rapturous Schumann, Varvaresos embodied the dutiful sacerdotal attitude of a priest maintaining a sacred flame.

Not every youthful virtuoso can dash off the 1832 set of the dozen Chopin Etudes, Op. 10 with such a combination of technical accuracy and lyric poetry. The “study” element, while dominant in each piece, does not obscure the intrinsic lyricism of which Chopin remains a master. Varvaresos took the C Major arpeggios of the first Etude at full stride, which meant easily absorbing spans of a tenth in the space of each group of four notes. In the second Etude, playing chromatic scales with the weaker third, fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand he impressed us with his uncanny legato. The famous E Major “Tristesse” Etude kept us in thrall with its lovely melody and its three-voice layering. Subtle rapid pedal changes helped Varvaresos in the C-sharp Minor, an aggressive study that featured awkwardly written sixteenth-note patterns that tax even the most technically accomplished vitruosos. The quicksilver G-flat “Black key” Etude balanced motor control in triplets — achieving vivace and legato at once. While Varvaresos eventually finished off the set with the potent, nationalistic cross-rhythms of the “Revolutionary’ Etude, surprisingly, one of the most impressive of the set may well have been the No. 11 in E-flat Major, with its monumental, rolled chords, a specialty of the late Josef Lhevinne. Varvaresos quite swallowed this whale whole, riding the top note of the huge spans with astonishing ease.

In his preliminary remarks Varvaresos spoke of the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata in B-flat Major (1913; rev. 1931) as a study in “masculinity,” an assertion of primal power. It is true that by 1931 Rachmaninoff had sculpted his style to a crisper, more classical severity, but this work still clamors for Russian bells and intimations of mortality. In the three movements, the scoring and sonority of the piece — its massive, block chords and thundering arpeggios — seemed a huge cadenza for the D Minor Piano Concerto, composed in 1909. Varvaresos performed this work with an abandon that belied its intrinsically classical structure, the outer movements’ exploiting two themes in direct contrast to each other. The middle movement provided a relatively quiet interlude, and then, attacca subito, the composer tosses us into the maelstrom once more.

During this performance, as we were witnessing the maelstrom whirling of nimble hands and fleet fingers of Mr. Varvaresos and being mesmerized by the eddy of colorful emotions, we couldn’t help making mental comparisons to pianists like Ashkenazy, Cliburn, and even Horowitz. However, at the end of the recital we had to conclude that Varvaresos was eminently successful in cultivating his own impressive artistic persona.

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