Two Ivo Varbanov (piano) Recordings

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms; Beethoven; Schumann
LABELS: ICSM Records
PERFORMER: Ivo Varbanov

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Brahms
Sonata No. 1; Scherzo, Op. 4; Ballades, Op. 10
Ivo Varbanov (piano)
ICSM Records ISCM 004   67:28 mins
 

Legacy
Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 126; Schumann: Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133; Brahms: 6 Chorale Preludes Op. 122 (trans. Busoni)
Ivo Varbanov (piano)
ICSM Records ISCM 002   53:08 mins

Writers of liner notes are usually taken for granted, but their work can hugely enrich our understanding. So this is a suitable moment to praise the excellence of the prolific Malcolm MacDonald, whose essay for Ivo Varbanov’s ‘Legacy’ CD was one of the last things he wrote before dying of cancer last year.

He had a lovely gift for the evocative phrase, and his description of Brahms’s last work – ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’ – must surely reflect his thoughts on his own imminent passing: ‘Each phrase of the chorale begins solidly and commandingly, only to melt into a gentle cadential dying fall, always echoed twice, in a way that suggests a desire to linger, a deep reluctance to move on to the end.’

In another felicitous aperçu, MacDonald suggests that ‘it is as if the whole tradition from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century has written these pieces through [Brahms], as an impersonal vessel’, and that is very much how Varbanov plays them: with the firmest and most definitive touch, and not a trace of ingratiation. The rest of this interestingly-conceived CD coheres impressively, with a warm glow cast on Beethoven’s late Bagatelles which come over as one single utterance, even if their drama is sometimes muted. No attempt is made to prettify the bareness of Schumann’s Bach-inspired pieces in Gesänge der Frühe, nor is there any smoothing of their sometimes clumsy construction.

Varbanov lets the beauties of Brahms’s First Sonata unfold gradually, but the young Brahms emerges with exuberant swagger in his account of the third movement; the Scherzo loses some momentum in its middle section and the Ballades are a bit monochrome, but this CD radiates the right sort of authority.

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Michael Church