The venues where Vassilis Varvaresos has already performed speak well for him: Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center among them; the last stop on this five-stop autumn tour, in fact, is to be the great Musikverein in Vienna. Born in 1983 and something of a child prodigy, Varvarenos went on after his studies at the conservatory in Thessaloniki to a higher musical education, both in Europe (Conservatory National, Paris) and America (Juilliard), gleaning accolades and prizes along the way.

Vassilis Varvaresos © Dimitris Stoupakis
Vassilis Varvaresos
© Dimitris Stoupakis
While the pianist is also a composer, the concert evening in Zurich ran under the header of other, better known names. His rendition of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F major, K332 startled the audience right out of the gate. The Allegro was light and fluid; the second movement, infinitely lieblich, that lovely German word best equated here with “tender”. All three movements featured a tone as fresh and lively as a May dance, even when some passages were marked by dramatic vehemence and greater volume. The familiar Mozart was also greatly enhanced by the pianist’s natural body language. From this very first piece, namely, he began the endearing dialogue he shared with his piano throughout. His frequent but genuine expressions of sheer pleasure at what the instrument could to do were just infectious.

Varvaresos explained that his composer/violinist friend Simos Papanas had written the Danse Macédonienne suite − whose first and last (of four) movements we would hear next − just for him. As complex as its rhythmic variations were, Varvarenos held it very “close to (his) heart”. Since Papanas was also in attendance, I had been able to ask him about his musical intentions. The composer wanted his music, he said, to reach out and “get through” to the audience, regardless of whether they ultimately liked the piece. The implication was that if it were to reach − even embrace − listeners, it could be the basis for more dialogue and further musical invention.

Embrace it surely did. The difficult composition began from a certain ‘place apart’, as if alighting from a faraway planet: a mystical repetition of high-pitched notes that morphed into unexpected chord clusters. The steady ‘drip’ of a shrill tone was the work’s semblance of a melody in the mid-range. According to the pianist’s introduction, the intertwining of the musical motifs spoke of both men’s Thessaloniki heritage, whether the ancient ceremonies in the Balkans, or − as particularly audible in the last movement − the folk themes of the Aegean. From there, it also brought in an assortment of other genres, including a kind of hunting call, a distinctive jazz beat, moments that were wholly and incomparably explosive. Watching the pianist’s fingers flash across the keyboard at warp speed and with such precision left me close to breathless. No question: the piece’s demands came close to bursting the realms of possibility.

The same might be said of Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, although it was really too heavy-handed and pedalled for my taste; rather than being a rich brocade of sounds and textures, it was so dense as to inhibit entry. By contrast, in Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 6 in A major, Varvarenos spotlighted the composer’s unique ability to change moods and illustrate a striking spectrum of tonalities and colours in the shortest order. The frenetic switch from figures knotted around a single insistent note to longer passages that thrash across five or six octaves, was nothing short of amazing. Prokofiev packed in the sounds of city traffic, pulled out strains of human anguish in his second movement, gave us a modified waltz motif in the third, and made “all over the map” citations in the fourth. And again, the pianist underscored with facial grimaces; on one very daring note, for example, on a “ping” that sent shivers up one’s spine, he squinched up his face into what looked like that of the Joker From Batman, giving the fleeting moment even greater potency.

Finally, Robert Schumann’s sublime Arabeske in C major saw Varvaresos at his most fluid and elegant, his hands turning and pausing on their axes, sustaining single notes mid-air, and making seamless connections from one segment to the next. He showed himself a dancer on the keys; indeed, his gift for music has all the elements of a strong athletic endeavour. But what was most extraordinary about our Zurich concert was that even with such a widely varied repertoire, Varvarenos could give such remarkable human dimension to his instrument: it was once the confidante, once the lover, once the conversational partner, once the arch enemy, a protean creature always in closest communion with him. In short, he seemed to make his piano truly live and breathe.