István Várdai, cello; Zoltán Fejérvári, piano: Works of Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Kodaly, Ligeti and Brahms, Playhouse, October 30, 2016.

Hungary has produced such an endless stream of great violinists and pianists over the decades that one can only ponder the absence of great cellists. Janos Starker, Miklós Perényi and Laszlo Varga are the some of the names that come to mind historically, but isn’t there now room for a younger Hungarian cellist to lead the way forward? Certainly since winning the ARD Cello Competition in Munich in 2014, it is István Várdai that is particularly in the spotlight, though at age 30, he is already a seasoned veteran: he has placed highly in international competitions since 2000 and made his first recording a full thirteen years ago. He has enthusiastic support from his following: upon winning this last competition, the Hungarian press sported headlines declaring Várdai to be ‘the world’s greatest cellist’. The artist is indeed distinctive: his style is possibly bigger-boned than one might be accustomed to these days, but his lovely burnished long lines play off against his snarling, razor-sharp agility in a way that is very special. In many respects, his playing is very modern, yet it still conjures up a link to old world traditions. For his debut recital here, Várdai was accompanied by pianist Zoltán Fejérvári, originally a graduate of the Bela Bartok Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy.

I was impressed with the way the duo played the music of their countrymen. While one might have wished for the greatest monument of them all, Kodaly’s Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, it was still very rewarding to hear this composer’s short Sonatina for Cello and Piano. The cellist found just the right sense of quiet melancholic flow and musing in the opening, bring out its subtle undulations most idiomatically.  Later, the duo got big and dramatic, pulling out all the right accents and rough edges to bring the brisker music home splendidly. The solo sonata that did make an appearance was that of Ligeti, an early work that the composer started when he was 25.  This not the Ligeti we have become accustomed to, yet it was absolutely fascinating the way the composition started with the same type of rhapsodic musing as the Kodaly, except that each of its legato phrases was completed with a tonally-aimless pizzicato. But that was just the beginning: the later sections moved into the type of motoric intensity that one finds in Bartók's ‘Diary of a Fly’, a more radical experiment that must have really opened the ears of young composers. Várdai attacked these passages with uncommon understanding, exhibiting great precision and sense of motion. This was all pretty special.

I have never thought that Mendelssohn’s Variations Concertantes was the equal of his Cello Sonatas, but we were certainly introduced to Várdai’s smooth, burnished tone and remarkable plasticity of phrase. For all the flexibility required in this work, it was evident that the cellist never sacrificed his tone colour – not even in the fastest passages. This was also playing of considerable feeling. The pianist was very alert, and both built the work with increasing fervour and passion as we moved towards the close.  Gregor Piatigorsky’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne left less of a mark, largely since the cello cannot achieve the same degree of neoclassical point and delight that a violin can. Fine playing again: ample rhapsodic flourish, lots of vibrato, but undeniably romantic and heavy.

The big test piece of the concert was Brahms’ F major Cello Sonata, and here my response was more qualified. I like full romantic treatments of this work, but in some ways the duo struck me as just so passionate that they almost upset the balance between the composer’s ardent expression and his more ruminative, wistful lyricism. There were many times that I felt that their projection was too unremitting. Undoubtedly, there were many good things along the way – and one must respect the eagerness of youth – but I think the liability was that the expression had less variety than both these artists are capable of.  In the opening Allegro, Várdai’s long lines offered great pleasure but the cellist seemed to push into his strong legato phrases almost identically each time he wanted emphasis. Fejérvári also seemed a little excitable; his fleet fingering was a pleasure, but the brash hardness of his fortissimo tone was not. The Adagio was not free of indulgence either: the expressive bulges from the cello and the often emphatic pianism seemed to sidestep the wistfulness of the expression.  Roughly the same characteristics seem to dominate the rest: often too thrusting and forceful, with some unwanted sentimentality in the quieter passages. I fully empathize with young artists who want to let everything go in this titanic work, but the approach does reveal their innocence. They will doubtlessly find a more cultivated approach later on.

In any event, this was a most interesting recital and I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the Hungarian repertoire. István Várdai clearly can do many things so well and has a sensitivity, command and tonal luster that are thoroughly distinctive. In some ways, he can seem to be a very tight, agile cellist yet he can move so compellingly into expressive and tonal breadth as well. It will be a pleasure to watch him develop in the future.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016