On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

George Enescu Festival 2017 – Cristian Lupeş conducts contemporary works

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano), ‘Mihail Jora’ Philharmonic Orchestra – Bacău / Cristian Lupeş (conductor)

Radio Hall, Bucharest, Friday 22nd September 2017 @ 1pm

Măniceanu OEN (2015)

Hess Piano Concerto (2007)

Iorgulescu Signals (1993)

Glanert Frenesia (2013)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

One of the most gratifying features in the current George Enescu International Festival was its emphasis on contemporary music, primarily through the Music of the 21st Century series. Alongside concerts and recitals, a programme of seminars (through the International Forum of Composers) featured composers from across Europe and the United States as to underline the essentially international character of this festival. One of these highlights was a concert by the ‘Mihail Jora’ Philharmonic Orchestra from Bacău with the conductor Cristian Lupeş.

Whatever else, Bacău has an orchestra of far from provincial standard. That this concert had been performed two days before did not account for the confidence with which these players tackled a demanding programme, opening with OEN by Mihai Măniceanu. Its title referring to transpositions of the octave (with a covert spatial element), this piece took in portentous unisons, strident outbursts, pointillist delicacy and modally inflected melodic lines across its eventful course, even if any greater continuity or momentum proved as inscrutable as its title.

Would Nigel Hess had shown any such ambition in his Piano Concerto, written in memory of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. This piece was as expected from one adept in music for film and TV – its three movements moving from the enervated charms of The Smile, via the Romantic blandishments of The Love (whose main tune might have given Claude François and Jacques Revaux pause for thought), to the martial strains of The Duty with its dutifully triumphal conclusion. A notable platform for the scintillating pianism of Vassilis Varvaresos (laureate of the 2014 Enescu Competition), who responded with Fantasie um Johann Strauss by Moriz Rosenthal as an uproarious encore and will soon take on the rather more rewarding assignment of Nikos Skalkottas’s Third Piano Concerto with the Basel Symphony Orchestra.

More Romanian music followed the interval. With its several dynamic sections separated by interludes of relative stasis, Signals by Adrian Iorgulescu unfolded with those ‘signals’ of its title audible at every level; with an emerging sense of that ‘greater whole’ such as sustained the work through to a virtuosic conclusion. The Bacău orchestra met its numerous challenges head on, duly motivated by Lupeş’s disciplined as well as perceptive direction to result in a gripping account of a piece that more than held the attention and was certainly worth revival.

Nor was Detlev Glanert’s Frenesia plain-sailing. Commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, its complex yet enticing sound-world belied a formal trajectory which focussed this by no means always frenzied evocation of ‘modern man’ with its headlong energy but also thoughtful expectancy. Suffice to add the musicians were not outfaced by those of the Concertgebouw (whose premiere can be heard on the RCO compilation ‘Horizon 6’) in making the most of this showpiece with substance.

An impressive showing by the Baçau players as well as being a notable occasion for Cristian Lupeş, who had earlier enjoyed comparable success with the Sibiu Philharmonic in a Festival Square concert. A major engagement at the next Enescu Festival in 2019 must surely beckon.

For more information on the Enescu Festival, head to the festival website