Alfred Brendel and Dénes Várjon Offer Rather Different Views of the Liszt Piano Sonata


United KingdomUnited Kingdom London International Piano Festival – Liszt: Alfred Brendel (speaker), Dénes Várjon (piano). Hall One, Kings Place, 7.10.2016. (MB)

Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178

No composer is more deserving of opening a piano festival than Liszt. The modern piano recital is his invention – and what any of us would have given to have heard him just once! Modern piano technique is his too, or at least its foundations are. And yet, as Alfred Brendel rightly pointed out in his opening lecture, jealousy has long prevented Liszt as composer from having anything like his due. That he was misunderstood, misrepresented, all the rest, we all know; what continues to shock is quite how persistent the nonsense spoken about him has proved. Brendel gave a reasonable introduction to some of the issues, although sadly, his lecture rarely rose above a somewhat laboured version of a ‘Sunday colour supplement’ approach. Even ‘analysis’ was little more than basic description, however lovely it was to hear the sound of Brendel’s Central European voice. Had he been edited, he would have had time to say much more. As it was, we were tantalised by occasional examples played on the piano, which suggested that he could still have made a decent enough attempt at the B minor Sonata.

It was a pity, I think, that we had not had a conversation between Brendel and Dénes Varjón before the latter came to the stage to perform the Sonata, since their conceptions of the work seemed to be very different indeed. Varjón presented a more rhapsodic view of the work, whereas Brendel spoke in terms that almost suggested formalism. I am sure it was not that Varjón was unaware of the work’s structure, but it was certainly not brought to the fore, which made for a somewhat odd disjuncture. Leaving Brendel on one side, though, did the performance convince?

In part, but only in part, would be my answer. The Introduction was promising, Liszt’s motifs full of expectation: there was a true sense, I felt, of the fragmentary, but a fragmentary that necessitated, even predicted fulfilment. Whether it were the bright acoustic or Varjón’s touch – I think it was a bit of both – I did not care for the harshness in the treble as the exposition proper announced itself. The second group fared better, with deeper tone, even a degree of charm. Something more Mephistophelian – especially when it came to that nagging figure – would not have gone amiss later on, though. Moreover, passagework tended to sacrifice effect to clarity, rather like those performances of Strauss tone poems in which one hears a little too much of the individual notes, but not the wash of sound. On the other hand, Varjón’s handling of fioritura (written in, of course!) was often impressive. The ‘slow movement’ showed that clarity need not be achieved at the expense of soul, quite the contrary; for me, it was the strongest part of the performance. Much of what followed proved curiously anonymous, although the notes were almost always present and correct. Until, that is the coda, which granted retrospectively a perhaps surprisingly strong impression of cyclical form.

Following the performance, Brendel was to return, in conversation with Alan Rusbridger. I was unable to stay, so cannot report back on that. However, here, for anyone who might be interested, are some thoughts of mine on Liszt as a composer of keyboard music (the Sonata included), from a lecture in Bergen op Zoom.

Mark Berry

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