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Selected Review


CDs

Dinorah Varsi (1939-2013)
The Legacy Box

The Legacy Box

The Legacy Box – music by Albéniz / JSBach / Bartók / Beethoven / Brahms / Chopin / Debussy / Falla / Franck / Ginastera / Haydn / Lekeu / Liszt / Felix Mendelssohn / Fanny Mendelssohn / Mozart / Rachmaninoff / Rameau / Ravel / Schubert / Robert Schumann / Clara Schumann / Scriabin / Tchaikovsky / Ulstvovskaya / Vieuxtemps / Ysa˙e

[*****]Genuin GEN 15353 [40 CDs] cŁ95

Dinorah Varsi was one of several South American musicians who went on to have significant post-war careers in Europe, and indeed across the world. She was born in 1939 in Uruguay, and belongs to that generation which includes Daniel Barenboim, José Serebrier, Martha Argerich and Alberto Lysy, amongst many others – a generation which profited from the encouragement of a number of great German-born musicians who performed and taught widely in South America in the years immediately following 1945.

Dinorah Varsi was born to play the piano, one would think, from the contents of a truly remarkable commemorative box of recordings and videos which has just been issued to mark her passing in Berlin at the age of 73 – no fewer than forty CDs and DVDs of her life and work are here gathered to form one of the most remarkable tributes to an artist who – on this showing, and indeed there could be no greater tribute than this impressive boxed set – was a most significant pianist.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this collection, comprising live and studio recordings, is its completeness, for the very first of the 40 discs opens with the six-year-old Dinorah at a recital, playing Chopin’s A minor Waltz Op 34 no 2. Not that the performance, as such – still less the recording quality of 1945 – is immediately identifiable as being by a finished artist (clearly, it is not), but there is an almost indefinable, but none the less, apparent degree of deep musicality which is astonishing in one so young.

This is followed by a live recording of Bach’s F Minor keyboard Concerto, BWV 10156, in which one feels the ten-year-old had been brought up on Edwin Fischer’s pre-war recording: it is good, but in no way exceptional, but also on the same disc is a very fine performance indeed of Rachmaninoff’s C minor Concerto by Dinorah at the age of 16, with the SODRE Orchestra of Montevideo – very musical, without a trace of exaggeration, finely phrased indeed and no-wise lacking in virtuosity where called for.

So, quite clearly, and very early on in her career, Dinorah Varsi was already a finely admirable artist: this account of the Rachmaninoff Concerto would disgrace no pianist, and it is no little wonder that by this time she had garnered significant praise – at the age of 6! - from artists of the calibre of Erich Kleiber, for example.

With such a start to her career, one wonders why she did not in fact enjoy a greater international reputation, for although her name was well enough known (an exclusive recording contract with Philips lasted seven years), she never quite achieved the eminence her early performances (as captured in these mono live recordings) would suggest.

One of the authors of the extensively illustrated book that comes in this hefty package, provides what some may think is a frank explanation: she refused to permit her first recording, of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, in the late 1960s, to be issued as ‘the recording engineer had applied the same sound aesthetics to many recordings made by Clara Haskil. Apparently he was following his vision of a ‘female’ type of piano-playing, because Clara Haskil’s radio recordings from the same period sound much more vivid and enthralling. In contrast to Clara Haskil, Dinorah Varsi refused to accept any sound quality: uncompromisingly, incommensurably, autonomously and, to a great extent self-critically, as was her way at that time. She lacked the pliancy required for the music business, the necessary sales and networking instinct.’

So there you have it: no record company likes working with an argumentative artist – and it is a pity that more recording were not made of Varsi by a more compliant record producer: her playing on these CDs certainly suggests her artistry deserved greater acknowledgement from her record company at the time, and the two recordings of Kreisleriana (1967 and 1969 – live and studio: one wonders if the latter is the version she would not permit to be issued at that time; the sound quality is not at all unacceptable, and her playing is truly fine).

Perhaps Varsi’s live recordings reveal her at her best: a live account of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini recorded in 1983 at the Berlin Philharmonie under Sir Neville Marriner is likewise exceptional (23’32” playing time); on the same disc is Bartók’s Third Concerto from Montevideo in 1971 – the orchestra a little backward in balance, and oddly prefaced by a radio announcement in Spanish.

Robert Matthew-Walker

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