The young Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon — whose playing has been winning accolades lately, both in chamber performances and as a soloist — presented a program of largely Romantic-era music at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, and he left no doubt that he is a musician of unusual power. Aside from the immaculate technique and deft sense of phrasing, Várjon brought something far more rare — a tangible sense of character in virtually everything he played, with incisive and strikingly flavorful interpretations of Beethoven, Schumann and Bartók .
Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 26, No. 12 opened the afternoon. It’s perhaps most famous for the somber funeral march at its core, and Várjon turned in a gripping reading of that shadow-filled movement — bleak at its heart but tinged with radiance — and set it vividly against the playful Scherzo and robust Allegro that frame it. He took an even more nuanced approach to Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke,” Op. 12, a collection of eight coloristic pieces that shift back and forth between dreamy and passionate. From the nocturnal “Des Abends” that opens the work, to the whimsical “Grillen” and the deeply felt “Ende vom Lied” that closes it, Várjon played with utter naturalness, almost as if improvising.
It was in the middle works of the afternoon — by his fellow Hungarian, Bela Bartók — that the pianist seemed to really come into his own. The early, dark-toned Two Elegies, Op. 8b are expressive and often richly chromatic works, falling somewhere between romanticism and impressionism and shot through with the torments of love. (Bartók wrote one elegy after losing his first love and the next after getting married to someone else; make of that what you will.) Várjon played these intimate cris de coeur as if straight from his own heart — an intense, revelatory performance that he followed with Bartók’s engaging Sonatina and eight pieces from “15 Hungarian Peasant Songs.”
Brookes is a freelance writer.