Meet the Artist – Dénes Várjon, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?

Though I didn’t start having piano lessons until the age of 7, I was already very interested in classical music much earlier. My great-grandmother was a piano teacher and we had a beautiful carved upright at home, which I loved. My parents, who were not musicians, loved classical music, especially operas, so they took me and my sister regularly to the opera. I enjoyed these performances enormously and listened to recordings at home as well. I especially loved Verdi and La Traviata was my absolute favourite opera (I still love it).

When at the age of 6 I started to attend school, I went to a music school, where we had singing lessons every day. I was singing in a choir as well and about twice a week we also had folk dance lessons. My parents didn’t want me to start having piano lessons during that year because school was already a big change in my life. But from my second school year it was natural to start piano and I had solfege lessons as well. I enjoyed it very much, though until the age of 11 I practised very little. Something happened to me at that time and suddenly I started to practise a lot and music really became the most important thing in my life. I was also reading a lot of music and at the age of 12 I made a successful entrance exam to the preparatory class for talented children at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of music and this changed my life completely. Here, I basically listened to concerts every evening, could meet and play for a lot of great musicians like Ferenc Rados, Zoltán Kocsis, Albert Simon. At around the age of 14, I started to have chamber music lessons as well, and a year later I was already a student of György Kurtág, with whom I studied for nearly 10 years. It was a very happy time of my life, full of great experiences and challenges and at the age of 16 I was able to start the first year at the Academy (today the Ferenc Liszt University of Music).

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was very lucky, because the time when I studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy we still had Ferenc Rados and György Kurtág working very intensively. They were both teaching chamber music, but all pianists played solo pieces for them as well. They both had an enormous impact on me and on my way of thinking about music and life. We usually had very long lessons, sometimes 2-3 times a week, and they worked in a very detailed way – sometimes with Kurtág we worked on just 8 bars for 2-3 hours. Of course it was not only about these few bars, but through working on a phrase he opened up and showed a whole universe with a lot of associations from music, literature, other arts, and this all happened with such an intensity I could not imagine before. He is also an incredible pianist, plays like only a great composer can play. As I often said with my musician friends, working with Ferenc Rados was like an X-ray examination. After playing 5 minutes for him, we got a diagnosis, which wasn’t easy at all, but was a task for a whole life. Studying with him was a very complex process, everything – the actual piece, the instrument, my own feelings, questions etc – were all in an incredible connection with each other. I learned from him how to practise, which is an incredibly important part of a musician’s life.

Besides these two great masters, another determining and most important experience was meeting András Schiff when I was 17. I regularly took masterclasses with him for the following 5-6 years in Vienna, at Prussia Cove, Siena etc, and later in Marlboro (USA) as well. It was a huge influence for me to play for him, to listen to his concerts, and to talk to him about music, literature, life etc. No other pianist made such an important impact on my development as a musician as him. Later I had the chance to play concerts with him as well, which meant a lot to me. I got to know through András, Sándor Végh and Heinz Holliger from whom I learned a lot and admired very much. For Sándor Végh I played chamber music several times in Prussia Cove and later had the chance to perform with his Camerata Salzburg with him as a conductor.

Heinz Holliger is also a kind of musical “Father figure” for me. During the last 20 years I played many concerts with him, as a soloist, in many different chamber groups. We have also made several recordings together and I also play his music, which I admire a lot.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenge is the music itself. Every morning when I start practising I think of the fact that I am trying to get nearer and nearer to these great masterpieces and this is a greatest challenge. In my career, it’s quite challenging that I love equally playing solo and chamber music. I feel the best when I can find a good balance between the solo repertoire and chamber music.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am extremely happy to record for ECM. De la nuit is my 4th album for them and I enjoyed all the recordings very much. For me sound is extremely important and I was always very inspired by the sound I could hear in the studio. Manfred Eicher has created something very special with his label and I am very happy and proud of my recordings for him.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I don’t know which works I play the best, I can only say which works and composers I love the most. For me a “love forever” composers are Beethoven, Schumann, Mozart and Bartók. Recently I’ve played Beethoven very frequently. I have been learning his last 5 Piano Sonatas and I have not enough words to express what it means to me to work on those masterpieces.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I love playing a lot of repertoire, I am not a type of pianist who would enjoy playing 2-3 programs a season. I play usually around 4-5 solo programs, 6-7 concertos and many chamber programs during a season. I always learn new pieces, especially for my recital programs.T here are certain pieces I come back to from time to time. For example, I just learned the Hammerklavier Sonata which I will play in many different programs during the next 2 to 3 seasons. Sometimes it goes together with Bartók, sometimes with Berg-Liszt-Kurtág, sometimes with Bach and Brahms. I also love creating festival programs. I organise a chamber music festival with my wife (pianist Izabella Simon) in Budapest. The Festival has a different theme every year which is the title of a great book. Each time, we make devise about 7-8 different chamber music programs around the theme, which is such a creative experience and gives so much to both of us.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I have a lot of favourite concert halls, but I have to mention two which are my absolute favourites. The first is the Great Hall of the Ferenc Liszt Academy, which is actually my second home. It’s a beautiful Secession style hall with a very warm atmosphere, and of course there a lot of personal aspects as well. I gave my so-called first “important” concerts there in my teens and still play there very often every season. I also had so many wonderful concert experiences there as a listener, hearing, for example, Richter, Annie Fischer, András Schiff or Sándor Végh.

The other Hall I would mention is the Wigmore Hall in London which is a most wonderful venue with an incredible acoustic. The audience is also so knowledgeable, I always feel it’s a feast to play there.

Who are your favourite musicians?

It’s a difficult question to answer since I have so many. From the past, Rudolf Serkin, Annie Fischer, Alfred Cortot, Pablo Casals, Sándor Végh, Carlos Kleiber, Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Maria Callas, Kathleen Ferrier just to name a few. The pianists I’ve listen to the most recently are András Schiff, Radu Lupu, Alfred Brendel. And I am really lucky because for many years I’ve played chamber music with some of my very favourite musicians like Steven Isserlis, Miklós Perényi, Tabea Zimmermann, Jörg Widmann, and Radovan Vlatkovic, among others.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My career started when I got the first prize at the Géza Anda Competition in Zürich in 1991. I was 23 years old and had very little experience playing with an orchestra. In the final round I played the Third Piano Concerto by Bartók (which is a very important piece for me) for the very first time. Of course I was very nervous but playing this incredible piece with the wonderful Tonhalle Orchestra in the beautiful Tonhalle Great Hall was an incredible experience for a young musician, as I was that time.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I am the type of musician who believes in a slower and persistent development rather than fast and spectacular jumps. I never wanted to make things to happen faster and I always wanted to give time for certain things. For me success is when I feel that a long process has a result and things are getting ripe. It is an inner process and that is the most important part of it, but if other people also notice it and react to it, that means a lot and can “give wings”.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

This is also a hard question to answer. I would say the first is to love music and love the process of searching for the meanings of the great pieces we are playing. I also think it’s important that our every day practising should happen with a lot of curiosity and with the feeling that through practising, I am not only getting nearer to the masterpieces I am playing but also learning a lot about myself – this is a great chance for development.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness means for me an inner balance with a lot of challenges at the same time and of course sharing this with those people-especially my family-whom I love the most.

What is your most treasured possession?

My most treasured possessions are the drawings of my 7 years old daughter which she has made for me. She has done a lot and when I am travelling I always take them with me.

What is your present state of mind?

Quite positive and balanced. I just turned 50, which is a bit strange to believe, but I am full of plans and really enjoy the way my life goes now.

Dénes Várjon’s new disc De la nuit, featuring music by Schumann, Ravel and Bartok, is released on 31 August on the ECM Records label

Dénes Várjon, born 1968 in Budapest, studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, receiving tuition in piano from Sándor Falvai and chamber music from György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados. Parallel to his studies, he was a regular participant of master classes with András Schiff. He was first prize winner of the Piano Competition of the Hungarian Radio,the Leo Weiner Chamber Music Competition in Budapest, and the Concours Géza Anda in Zürich.

Várjon is a regular guest at festivals including Salzburger Festspiele, Lucerne Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival, Biennale di Venezia, Marlboro Festival (USA), Klavierfestival Ruhr, Kunstfest Weimar, and Edinburgh International Festival, and has been a frequent contributor to András Schiff’s and Heinz Holliger’s Ittinger Pfingstkonzerte.

He has performed with major orchestras such as the Camerata Salzburg, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the Wiener Kammerorchester, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra Budapest, the Camerata Bern, the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zürich, the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Bremen Philharmonic, Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Baltica, and many others, and working with conductors including Heinz Holliger, Adam Fischer, Leopold Hager, Iván Fischer, Hubert Soudant, Peter Rundel, Thomas Zehetmair and many more.