Dénes Várjon in conversation with Sebastian Smallshaw
Dénes Várjon studied music at the Liszt Academy with Sándor Falvai, György Kurtág, and Ferenc Rados. Over the last 25 years, he has established an international career as a concert pianist and chamber musician, and is a regular guest at prestigious festivals in Europe and the United States. Since 2015, he has been artistic co-director of the chamber music festival kamara.hu, which he coordinates together with his wife, the pianist Izabella Simon. I spoke with Dénes Várjon in Budapest, just after he had performed in the second concert of this year’s kamara.hu.
SS: The theme of the 2017 festival is ‘Magic Mountain’, by which you mean Thomas Mann’s novel.
SS: How did this book come to serve as inspiration for your programming?
DV: I would talk first a little bit about the history behind the festival. For quite a few years with my wife, Izabella, we devised programs which always had a theme. At one time, we were doing a series named after Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday and we mostly played pieces which were composed around the turn of the twentieth century. Having a theme like this was not very strictly about the book itself, but about the many connections which arose from it.
SS: And from these experiments came the concept of kamara.hu?
DV: Two years ago, the Liszt Academy said that they would provide a home for this idea, and proposed that we should create a festival together. That’s how kamara.hu started; now it’s in its third year. And then we decided that every year we would name each festival after the title of a great book. In the first year, we chose Firsts and Lasts – the English translation of the Hungarian title of some short stories by Lyudmila Ulitskaya – and performed pieces which were composed at the beginning of a composer’s career, followed by their later works. Last year the book was by Klaus Mann: The Turning Point, a fantastic autobiographical book.
SS: Is Klaus Mann as music-obsessed in this book as his father Thomas Mann, and Stefan Zweig?
DV: Yes, absolutely. We also thought very much about the idea of turning points, what it is that we experience as turning points in life, and there were so many pieces here which could be presented and combined. This year we wanted to program pieces which have stories behind them, or fairy tales and ballads… While a work like Busoni’s second violin sonata, which we performed tonight, basically doesn’t have a story, I always feel as if it’s like a long book, in which everything is connected. It’s about what could be behind the pieces – for example, we will perform Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Schumann Op.23, which have a theme that comes from a chorale Schumann thought had been sung to him by angels. He had already used it in the violin concerto, so it was in fact his own theme. Then he composed variations on it, and after completing the fourth variation he jumped into the Rhine. After being rescued from this suicide attempt, he composed another variation and was taken to Endernich. There is a story inside this piece, and Brahms composed variations on this theme. Another example is Smetana’s Trio, which portrays the spirit of his daughter who had recently died. ‘Magic Mountain’ therefore spoke to us because magic is a keyword for stories and fairy tales, and mountains conjure up an image of being cut off from the world down below, being somehow out of reality. The idea was not so strongly connected to Thomas Mann’s book, but at the same time, the connection between words and music – Thomas Mann often said that his writing was in a way ‘composed’ like music – is either conspicuously present or below the surface. Our aim is that we, as musicians, and the audience too, should have some degree of freedom to engage with this theme and to find our own associations and connections. The theme we choose every year is therefore quite freely meant, but at the same time strongly connected to the music we program.
SS: I wanted to ask a bit more specifically about the programming. Izabella Simon isn’t with us now, but you co-direct and perform in kamara.hu as two pianists, rather than one of you being, say, a violinist. It’s a chamber music festival but the focus seems a bit away from string quartets. At least so far, we haven’t heard that much music written for string quartet.
DV: Yes, the piano is certainly emphasized! But that the chamber formations are always different and varied is intentional. It’s also very important for us to have singers and the Lieder repertoire – and not separately, like in a Lieder recital, but alongside different chamber works.
SS: Your approach calls for a diverse group of musicians. The concept, and again maybe you can say if this goes back to previous years, is that you invite colleagues from outside Hungary to come and work with you, who this year include some world-class instrumentalists like Radovan Vlatkovic, but you also have collaborators who are more local to Budapest. How do you go about gathering a group of artists and what is your process for deciding who is going to be involved?
DV: These people are all friends, or colleagues, with whom we perform a lot of music all over the world. For example, we’ve known Radovan for 25 years at least; Izabella and I both performed with him many times. Of the Hungarian colleagues this year, András Keller and Miklós Perényi are very old friends and we worked quite a lot with them before. This year there are also many people we met at the Marlboro Festival, where we go quite regularly. The aim is to have a family of musicians with whom we also play during the year. We are very proud of the group we bring together and always have some really great musicians who come – last year’s festival featured Tabea Zimmermann, Jörg Widmann, and Steven Isserlis. I might add that some pieces are put together here in Budapest, and other pieces we already performed or toured with previously.
SS: I can’t say I’ve noticed so far what has been played before and what has been prepared for the first time here.
DV: But that’s a good thing! I think it’s important that while we’re lucky to have great musicians, some of them quite famous, everybody comes here to serve the aim of the festival and the emphasis is always on the program. I find that there are two types of festivals in the world: one concentrates on the performers and having stars, with programming being less important; and the other has a very strong emphasis on the program, even also having stars – or great musicians, whatever we want to call them – but who all come here for the same aim. Kamara.hu goes very strongly in this direction.