Monday, November 20, 2017

Vassilis Varvaresos - Schumann, Papanas, Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin & Ravel - 11/16/17

Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
Papanas: Piano Suite No. 1
 Schubert/Liszt: Soirée de Vienne No. 7
Liszt: Méphisto Waltz No. 1
Scriabin: Waltz for piano in A flat Major, Op. 38
Ravel: La Valse

Although I tend to enjoy all sub-genres of classical music, the one I am the least fond of has to be the Hapsburg waltz. So I was originally kind of bummed when I noticed that the recital by fast-rising Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos last Thursday night revolved around the theme of waltz, or at least dance. A closer look, however, made me realize that, despite their titles, none of the pieces he had selected was a traditional Viennese waltz, so I breathed a huge sigh of relief and promptly made a reservation.
My early commitment turned out to be a clever move because Lincoln Center's wonderfully intimate Merkin Hall can only sit 425 people, and almost twice as many had tried to get a ticket. Thing is, even though Vassilis Varvaresos may not be a household name just yet, the young musician has earned impressive degrees, won prestigious competitions, composed for films and television series, wrote a book, and delivered a wide range of performances around the world, including at the White House. And this is clearly only the beginning.
So barely 48 hours after the wild ride that was Thomas Adès' The Exterminating Angel at the Met, I was getting mentally prepared for a more low-key but no less exciting musical evening with my friend Jayne, whom I incidentally met at the Onassis Cultural Center, the non-profit organization that was supported this concert along with the Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation. We originally felt like we were sticking out big time in the apparently all-Greek crowd, but the unifying power of music quickly helped us blend in.

After the official speeches were done and before the music got started, Vassilis Varvaresos proved to be a charming and insightful host as he was introducing the various works in the program. Then he wasted no time to establish his virtuoso credentials by boldly kicking off the concert with Schumann's "Faschingsschwank aus Wien" (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), a popular concert piece that include five widely different and equally challenging movements in an epic 20-minute stretch.
The opening Allegro was substantial and multi-faceted, almost an entire work in itself. The Romanze was short and tender as if to give pianist and audience a little break before the Scherzino perked things up with plenty of playfulness. The emotionally-charged Intermezzo had a truly lovely melody to it and the Finale exploded with much energy and power. There was clearly nothing there that Varvaresos could not handle, and he delivered an assured performance of it.
If Robert Schumann needs no introduction, contemporary Greek composer Simos Papanas is not that well-known yet, but judging from the Piano Suite No. 1 he wrote for Varvaresos, he certainly has the composing chops needed to reach a larger audience. Inspired by the hypnotic nature of shimmering water and the sentimental sounds of church bells, this new work for piano started wonderfully ethereal and atmospheric until an irresistibly fun and devilishly difficult Macedonian dance whipped it into a thrilling virtuosic frenzy.
The second part of the program consisted of shorter pieces literally inspired by waltzes, but so ingeniously arranged that not much was left of the original dance form. Franz Liszt's personal take on Franz Schubert's "Soirée de Vienne No. 7" turned out to be delightfully quirky. On the other hand, his own "Méphisto Waltz No. 1", which evokes the episode of the "Dance at the village inn" from Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust, unfolded with voluptuous sensuality and colorful drama. Channeling the powerhouse that was Liszt is no easy task for even the most seasoned pianist, so Varvaresos deftly met the challenge by making the two pieces his own and brilliantly succeeded.
At just over five minutes, Alexander Scriabin's Waltz for piano in A-flat Major was a fleeting Romantic pleasure exuding sweet perfumes and pretty melodies. It also went through a wide range of moods, from hesitant to passionate to happy-go-lucky, which Varvaresos unperturbably expressed with impeccable timing and infectious enthusiasm.
The program ended with Maurice Ravel's "La valse", a choreographic poem for orchestra originally conceived for a ballet, but now more often heard as a concert piece. Whether it is a comment on the merciless destruction of World War I, a tribute to Ravel's mother who had just died, or a plain musical score for a ballet, only the composer knows for sure.
The piano version we heard on Thursday evening beautifully preserved the darkness and surrealism that were so prevalent in the original composition, and managed to celebrate the death of the Viennese waltz all by itself with diabolical determination and macabre glee. Who needs a whole orchestra when you have the right pianist?

A bona fide film buff, Varvaresos has composed ten film scores already. He has also come up with a 70-minute composition on a paraphrase from Star Wars (At least nobody can accuse him of thinking small.). As luck would have it, our extended standing ovation earned us a excerpt of it, which needless to say contained the universally famous Star Wars theme, as a formidable encore. On Thursday night, the force was unquestionably with Vassilis Varvaresos.

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