The Incredible Lightness of Gloom
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
Leos Janácek: In the Mists
Karol Szymanowski: Scheherezade from Masques, Opus 34
Béla Bartók: Dance Suite, Opus 14
Georges Enesco: Sonata Number 1 in F sharp minor, Opus 24
Matei Varga (Pianist)
M. Varga (© Matthew Sussman)
At the beginning and end of his hour-long recital last night, Matei Varga apologized for appearing the same night as the Super Bowl. But it was noted with such good humor–with the packed house at Poisson Rouge obviously not caring the least bit about about football–that this only endeared the youthful artist even more.
Perhaps only in Poisson Rouge are serious performers allowed to interact with listeners. Usually the comments are platitudinous. But Mr. Varga was so informative, anecdotal and self-deprecating that it only enriched the concert.
But this comes later. Most important was his program–a program apparently put together with the help of fellow pianist Radu Lupu–and his performance.
Frankly, I had never seen such an interesting concordance of music. The four works, written within 12 years of each other, were from four different Central European countries. Each of them exhibited, what Mr. Varga described as “the ultimate gloom, the mistiness of this part of the world”.
(One of his early teachers had told him, ‘No matter how much joy is in music, it is always sad.” Those of us who have spent rainy Sundays or 20-watt nights in Bucharest or Budapest knows the truth of that.)
All the works shared not only that sense of melancholy, those quirky rhythms, those spontaneous unrelated outbursts or tics or hammer-blows, but they even shared notational relationships. Mr. Varga noted how the last movement of the Bartók had the same notes as the beginning ot the Szymanowski. It was equally apparent that the first measures of the Janácek were mirror images of the last movement by Enesco.
Something in the waters? A mineral in the Carpathians? Who knows?
The 30-year-old Mr. Varga has a lifetime to explore the meaning of his heritage. And already, the meaning of his music was ear-boggling, for he is a fearless performer. In the Mists has been played more mystically, with more seeming improvisation, but Mr. Varga played like confident hero. After the first measures, the mists were vaporized, and he cut down the abrupt complexities with dazzling digital ease. The work itself can never reveal all its mysteries, but Mr. Varga simply ignored the enigmas and played it with dazzling assurance.
Szymanowski’s body of works is still unknown outside Poland, and Scheherezade was certainly new to New York. “You have many ways to think of this of this,” explained Mr. Varga, “but instead of the story, perhaps you could think of it as the way Scheherezade herself was feeling”. Szymanowski, though, was hardly a literal imagist. His impressions were difficult, endearing, the last sections were decidedly jazzy, and amidst the underbrush, he managed to bring out a folk song or two
He was, yes, part of the Central Europeans whose voices come out from the forests rather than the salons. Mr. Varga made this aristocrat’s voice loud and clear.
The Bartók Dance Suite was described by Mr. Varga as, “The most upbeat music of the evening. So enjoy it while you can.” Not exactly true, since the ending is anything but upbeat. Nor is it quite Mr. Varga’s style. The hesitation, the alternating beats were played all too literally.
Yet before that, what a wonderful sense of octave resonance and incredible octave passages he had in the third movement. It was a magical work.
Equally luminous was the rarely-played Enesco First Sonata from Mr. Varga’s homeland. Yehudi Menuhin once told me that Enesco was the greatest musician he had met in his lifetime, and the toccata-like brilliance of the Sonata gave proof his dexterity. Again, we have a last movement of sadness, what Mr. Varga described, in the Rumanian word, dor or yearning.
The recital ended all too soon with a Scriabin-like encore by a 17-year-old Rumanian composer who had died in an earthquake. Like a metaphor of Mr. Varga’s picture of Central Europe, tragic, soulful, ebullient, offering life and death as a touching ensemble.