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The Hungarian pianist breaking down the wall between solo and ensemble music

Making music together: Hungarian husband and wife pianists Izabella Simon and Dénes Várjon. Photo/Posztos Janos
Two years ago, Hungarian pianists – and married couple – Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon were at the airport waiting to leave New Zealand when the invitation came to return. Várjon, with Simon occasionally performing alongside, had entranced Nelson’s Adam Chamber Music Festival and organisers couldn’t wait to have him back. When the forthcoming event’s programme was announced, his solo recital quickly sold out.

What’s special about this modest and quietly spoken musician whose solo and ensemble albums have been increasingly winning acclaim and awards? Perhaps his combination of staggering technique with a profoundly sensitive musicality. His virtuosity is unpretentious and his elegant playing, full of passion and tenderness, reveals a complete commitment to composers and their music.

Várjon spent his teenage years at the famous Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, a place where “you had to give the last drop of your blood for the composers. There was a strong tradition from when Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi were teaching there and taught great Hungarian musicians such as György Kurtág and Zoltán Kocsis; from them, our teachers, we could feel that tradition back to the golden days of the academy.”

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Chamber music was also hugely important during his studies. “Today, the music business likes to put a wall between solo playing and chamber music, but for me, this is unnatural. Solo pianists who play chamber music seem to have extra sensitivity. I find it a constant inspiration. I’m very happy with the balance in my work now, almost exactly 50-50 solo and chamber music.”

Simon was a fellow student at the academy.“We often talk about it; it was our second home. It was a great experience of what it means to be a musician, the importance of searching to find the real meaning of those masterpieces.” For a long time after graduation, the two pursued separate careers, but increasingly they play and record together. “To be honest, it’s natural; we play for each other all the time, and we have exactly the same musical tastes; we resonate the same way. We don’t have to practise some things at all, because we breathe together. Of course, four hands on one piano can be difficult, and only one person uses the pedal. It’s very good practice for marriage,” he says wryly, “being aware all the time of the other person’s feelings.”

Várjon grew up during the Soviet years in Hungary and lives in Budapest, but refuses to be drawn on the political situation in his country where the party of far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán holds a two-thirds majority. “I avoid this question, because it’s very sensitive and even long friendships end because of politics. For me, tolerance is very important.”

But, having just turned 50, and being accompanied to New Zealand by both his wife and eight-year-old daughter for some post-festival tourism, Várjon feels blessed.

“This is a fantastic time, very fulfilled; I’m very actively living. As a musician, I’m doing what I always wanted to do. And I feel much younger than when I was 30 – I’m braver now, inside.”

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson, January 31-February 9; piano recital, Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon, Waikanae Music Society, February 17.

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.