Enescu is one of twentieth century's most underrated composers, and his piano music in particular deserves to be heard a lot more often. Perhaps one reason why not a lot of pianists have paid attention to Enescu is because, while it is fiendishly difficult to play, the music rarely offers virtuosic thrills that bring concert audiences to their feet. To be sure, playing Enescu is just as difficult as playing Bartok, Ravel, Prokofiev or Rachmaninov, but Enescu requires a selfless kind of virtuosity, one that goes far beyond absolute control of the instrument. Enescu makes most of his points in pianissimo, and following his extraordinarily detailed -- and oftentimes facially contradictory -- dynamic and interpretative directions is oftentimes frustrating.
A few years ago, the Romanian pianist Luiza Borac recorded Enescu's entire piano music output on the label Avie, and her recordings were justly met with great praise. I was curious to see how Matei Varga's new Enescu CD fared by comparison to Borac. Well, Varga's Enescu is also superlative. Like Borac, Varga (who is also Romanian) has a very special affinity with this music, which he plays with great respect, affection, insight and, when the score requires it, romantic abandon. While Borac's playing is more extroverted, Varga does equal justice to Enescu's music and reveals another, more Brahmsian side to the music that I had not appreciated before. (Incidentally, Enescu was a great admirer of Brahms.) It is a matter of apples and oranges, like Friedrich Gulda's and Claudio Arrau's Beethoven interpretations -- any serious music lover will want to own both.
There are countless moments to savor. In the pensive, chromatic last movement of the Sonata, Varga's luminous tone, subtle tempo adjustments, dynamic gradations and ppp glissandi simply take one's breath away. This is magical, hypnotic playing that disarms criticism. In the Choral, Varga sustains Enescu's endlessly arching lines and slow tempo without ever sounding slow or repetitive, and, frankly, he makes this music sound a lot more profound than it should. In the exquisite Carillon Nocturne (the companion piece to the Choral), Varga's control of dynamics, articulation and pedaling result in some wonderful glowing sonorities. This is as close as one can get to actually hearing a ripple effect. Truth be told, I found Varga's performance of the Choral and Carillon pair to be more sensitive and compelling than Borac's. The Second Suite, which Enescu wrote in his early twenties, is an absolute delight. The Sarabande and Pavane in particular show Varga's remarkable gifts as a colorist, and feature some of the most beautiful pianissimo sounds I've heard from anyone. I've never been very fond of the Bouree that concludes the suite, but Varga plays it with authority and makes the most of it.
The quality of the sound is uniformly excellent, and it does full justice to Varga's wide dynamic palette. The recording credits the legendary Max Wilcox as a producer.
Hopefully these performances (alongside Borac's) will incite more interest in Enescu's wrongly neglected music. I look forward to hearing a lot more from Matei Varga.