As part of the Montréal en Lumière Winter Festival, internationally renowned pianist Dénes Várjon was invited to perform a solo recital at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music. Currently a professor at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Várjon’s program was fit for a conservatory, a sort of chronological overview of the literature with Classical and Romantic standards, a piece from the warhorse cabinet and a touch of modernist flare. The evening was a display of varying styles and challenges that demonstrated Várjon’s adaptability and dexterity.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.14, no. 2 in G major, an early work of the composer in a Classical style. The work is light-hearted throughout and at times witty, described by Donald Tovey as an “exquisite little work”. Várjon successfully conveyed the light character of the piece through even touch, clear pedalling and careful control of dynamics. A clear, transparent texture was achieved that allowed for attention to Beethoven’s subtle play with expectations. The scalar passages were soft and playful. The second movement, a theme and variations, was full of surprising interjections. During the final movement, full of rapid scales, the most important lines in the texture were clearly articulated. Despite a very faithful performance, one felt that it was a bit safe, and that perhaps Várjon could have taken more risks in order to bring something more of himself to the performance.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op.12 provided a greater expressive opportunity, which Várjon took in full stride. These character pieces, each with a distinctive mood, were performed with a great deal of emotion. There was great contrast between the delicate simplicity of “Des Abends” and the storming frenzy of “Augschwung”. Várjon captured the dark, brooding atmosphere of “In der Nacht” particularly well, with distant-sounding harmonies crashing in to the foreground with dramatic flair. The naïve, child-like quality of “Fabel” was also a highlight.

Then there was Gaspard de la nuit, Ravel’s masterwork based on the poems of Aloysius Bertrand. Often cited as one of the most difficult pieces of piano music written, this work is a challenge for even the greatest pianists on both a technical and interpretative level. It is as if Ravel identified the greatest difficulties of piano playing and rolled them all in to a set of pieces – there is crossing of hands, leaps around the keyboard, and the necessity to achieve a consistently even sound from a repeatedly struck key.

It must be said that Várjon’s interpretation, while not flawless, was highly expressive and imaginative. “Ondine” was the best executed of the three movements. The playing seemed effortless, with soft, cascading arpeggios under full control. I must also commend Várjon for an astonishingly soft glissando on the piano. In the second movement, “Le Gibet”, Várjon chose to roll the opening chords, an interpretation I had never heard before. The tempo was rather straight ahead without much rubato. The middle section, featuring a lone voice singing out against the bell, was wonderfully sparse and expressive. As always, “Scarbo” was a wild display of virtuosity. This movement presented the most technical challenges of the concert, but still managed to be an expressive interpretation. The voicing was clear, the melody singing above the accompaniment of rapid left hand sweeps.

Out of Doors, a series of pieces by Bartók, rounded out the concert. With a characteristic Bartók approach to harmony and rhythm, this was a contrast from the rest of the program. The titles of these pieces depict scenes of outdoor folk dances and wild hunts. Várjon approached the first piece with power, articulating the heavy off-kilter rhythms in the left hand meant to represent drums. The second and third pieces, both dance forms, featured cluster chords and asymmetrical ostinatos. The fourth piece, called “The Night’s Music” was of particular interest, a blurry ostinato creating mysterious landscape, both dark and static. The final “Chase” featured rapid, repeated note passages. Várjon ended the performance with a bang, standing up out of his seat only seconds after completing the final fortissimo chord.

The repertoire in this concert was highly demanding both technically and expressively, and Várjon did a fantastic job of navigating varied terrain. The right balance between technical accuracy and musicality can be difficult to achieve, but in Várjon’s shining moments, there was equilibrium.