It could be tempting to criticize Dénes Várjon’s Saturday afternoon Kennedy Center recital, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts, as just another round of familiar German war horses. But filtered through the Hungarian pianist’s poetic vision — and fleet fingers — storied works by Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann opened to reveal true greatness.
Some of the most expressive playing unfolded just moments after the recital began in the opening movement of Beethoven’s forward-looking Piano Sonata No. 28. Várjon caressed odd, syncopated chords in the lyrical opening movement, added ethereal touches within the heaven-storming march and masterfully built fugue-like passages, blooming from the depths of the keyboard, in the final Allegro.
Emotions ran more privately in Brahms’s Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118. They blend autumnal lighting with pensive introspection and ardent melodies of arresting beauty. They also get played a lot. But Várjon created uncommonly deep poetry out of the music, especially in the ravishing A major Intermezzo, which rocked like a lullaby with transparent, singing inner voices, and in the Romance, where chords were strummed exquisitely over a swaying bass line.
If Beethoven embodied the heart of the recital and Brahms occupied its soul, then Schumann’s Symphonic Études served as its manic nerve center.
Published in two versions, the work is both a set of virtuosic études and a series of wayward variations on a mediocre theme, written by an amateur who was, for a moment, Schumann’s prospective father-in-law. Confusion over various editions allows the performer a build-your-own approach to the piece. Várjon bypassed three of Schumann’s delicate posthumous variations, although they were indicated in the program. Too bad. They would have provided much-needed tranquility amid the unrelenting agitation. Even the third étude, rippling like sun-dappled brook, was undermined by an overly frenetic bass. Still, lesser artists pound their way through Schumann’s Études. Várjon performed with stunning control and dynamic savvy.
Not forgetting his homeland, Várjon included five works from “Games,” by György Kurtág, the 93-year-old composer under whom he once studied. Distilled to essences of expression, the two-minute pieces displayed tolling bells, shards of melody and silence. Várjon’s encore, an atmospheric Hungarian Folk Song by Bartók, sent the appreciative audience to its feet.