Huntley Dent, Fanfare Magazine Jan – Feb 2015

Fanfare-magazineJanuary/February 2015


The growing field of artist-run labels is very encouraging, in that we get to hear attractive talents such as husband-and-wife pianists Ivo Varbanov and Fiammetta Tarli, who give considerable pleasure in their first batch of solo and duet releases. They are accomplished artists, he from Bulgaria, she from Italy, with depth of background and wide experience concertizing in Europe. I was the most attracted to their unusual CD of Brahms waltzes; in fact, I’ve never before encountered the four-hand piano arrangement, minus vocal quartet, that the composer made of his beloved Liebeslieder Waltzes (hence the amended opus numbers 52a and 65a).

Brahms loved waltzes, all the more after he arrived in Vienna from his native Hamburg. He modeled his own not on the Strauss family’s long, elaborate ballroom waltzes, but on the much simpler rustic L?ndler that Schubert produced by the dozens. As the excellent program notes tell us, all three sets of Brahms waltzes, 46 in toto, depend on melodic charm for their appeal. With a handful of exceptions, Brahms wrote them in simple binary form with each half being repeated. The final timings come out between 38 seconds and just under three minutes. For the most part the skill level doesn’t challenge an accomplished amateur pianist. An album of 46 waltzes may have its limitations as a single-sitting listening experience, but Tarli and Varbanov are strong, convincing performers. Amazingly, when you subtract the vocal side of the Liebeslieder Waltzes, the piano reduction brings unexpected interest, at least for me. I’m not keen on the Victorian sentimentality of the texts, and a purely instrumental rendering is rather like hearing a large new set of Brahms interrmezzos.

In a solo recital, one of two, Varbanov launches out from Beethoven’s familiar Bagetelles op. 126 into territory that was once fairly unexplored. What unites the program is that these are the final piano compositions from each composer—Beethoven was writing three years before his death, providing a light refresher after the epic outpouring of the Diabelli Variations. Schumann wrote his enigmatic Ges?nge der Fr?he (Songs of Dawn) in October 1853, the month he met the young Brahms and only a few months before his attempted suicide and mental breakdown. Long considered a lamentable sign of his musical deterioration, these five miniatures have found advocates in the general trend of reviving late Schumann. In the spring of 1896, the year before he died, Brahms returned to the chorale preludes of the old masters he revered and the church services of his youth. The piano transcriptions that Busoni made of six (out of a total of 11) are justified by the fact that Brahms used to play them on the piano himself.

Within this theme of last keyboard works, Varbanov presents a wide variety of mood and technique. He makes a particularly strong case for the Schumann pieces through his forceful, committed delivery. (I’ll confess to being unconvinced by late Schumann in general—he seems trapped in a private world, if not yet a deranged one.) Varbanov’s reading of the Beethoven bagatelles is assured and unadorned. The Brahms chorale preludes don’t have much that’s Brahmsian about them, so effectively has he submerged his persona in the past, but I like the stout (dare one say Lutheran?) spiritual conviction Varbanov brings to them. This whole recital, although brief, is pungent and intriguing.

Tarli’s solo recital consists of Schubert’s six Moments musicaux, which were among the first sets of character pieces published for the piano. The title is unique, but it’s not clear if the composer or his publisher thought it up (the biggest clue to Schubert being the source is that the original title was Momens musicales, pointing to his defective French). Schumann perfected the genre of character pieces; these Fantasy Pieces op. 12 were inspired by stories from the sensationally fanciful E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of his favorite authors, although Schumann could be sent into the realms of fantasy simply by waking up in the morning.

Schoenberg’s cryptic Six Piano Pieces op. 19 from 1911 sound so condensed and abstract that you’d think they don’t belong on a program of character pieces, yet the last one begins with tolling bells, reminding us that it was written soon after Schoenberg returned home from Mahler’s funeral. In all three sets Tarli’s pianism is direct and confident, especially in the Schumann. She keeps nicely to the middle way between excessive Romantic emoting and sterile impersonality. An enjoyable listen.

Back to Brahms for an impressive solo recital by Varbanov, the uniting thread being that all six works on the program were written between the ages of 18 and 21. If we are still astonished by such precocity, at least we know what Brahms would achieve in the future. Robert and Clara Schumann opened their door in October 1853 to an unknown pianist from Hamburg who came inside with a letter of introduction from the violinist Joseph Joachim. He sat down to play his C Major Sonata, op. 1, and that night Schumann wrote in his diary, “Visit from Brahms, a genius.” Although this was actually his fourth attempt at a piano sonata, the young Brahms chose it for his opus 1 and featured it in his recitals—well into his 30s he was chiefly known as a piano virtuoso, a performer of other composers, and an accompanist for more famous soloists like Joachim.

Varbanov’s bio states that he’s a major musical force in his native Bulgaria, and his powerful, muscular reading of the op. 1 Sonata leaves no doubt of his authority. I was particularly impressed by the sweep of the first movement and the touching simplicity Varbanov brings to the folksong-based slow movement. (The program notes reveal a secret trick that Brahms revealed to a friend, that he often based the rhythmic pulse of his themes on poetry. In the finale of the First Piano Sonata the inspiration was the Scottish ballad My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here by Robert Burns. Once you know that, you can’t miss the rhythm of a prominent theme in the rondo finale.)

Varbanov’s program moves on to Brahms’s very earliest surviving piano piece, the Scherzo in E?Minor, which is as large-scaled and ambitious as the sonata. In later life Brahms abandoned long-form piano writing in favor of short lyric pieces (his capriccios, intermezzos, rhapsodies, etc.), and the four early Ballades, op. 10, prefigure those. Even at 21 he could draw upon the melancholy of his late phase, although these four pieces, which Varbanov plays with all the strength and reach displayed so far, can also be romantically melodic, wistful, and tender.

These four albums were recorded under very good studio conditions in the UK—I believe Tarli and Varbanov are London-based—with fine-sounding instruments, although in the Brahms solo recital I detected some clangy tone at loud dynamics. Special mention should be made of the very extensive, intelligent, and well-written booklet notes by Malcolm MacDonald; they were an education in themselves. Huntley Dent

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