Sunday 20 September 2015

Exploring the legacy of Dinorah Varsi

Dinorah Varsi
Dinorah Varsi
The Uruguayan pianist Dinorah Varsi was born in 1939 and died in 2013, having first performed in public at the age of four, and continuing to perform and record (her first recording session was in 1945) until 2009 when she withdrew from concert life. Such a wide career inevitably spawned a great many recordings and now there is a chance to explore her work in detail with a 40 disc Dinorah Varsi Legacy boxed set from Genuin. This includes 13 discs of live recordings, 21 discs of studio recordings, a disc of interviews and four of films of her playing.

Varsi started studying the piano at the age of four, making her first public appearance just three months later. The first disc in the set includes recordings made by the five,- ten- and fifteen-year old pianist. Until 1961 her career was in South America, but in that year she played with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (having been heard by their musical director when he conducted in South America), further studies in Europe followed and in 1967 she won the Clara Haskill Competition in Lucerne and this effectively launched her international career. She was signed to the Phillips label and made eight discs for them. Her core repertoire was the main Romantic and Classical composers, with a sense that Chopin was dear to her.

Dinorah Varsi Legacy Box
Her musicianship seems to have been instinctive and she was described as being born with a piano. It wasn't all easy, she had rather a difficult time in Paris studying there and the troubles were with teachers, with muscular problems and loneliness arising from concentrating on music and not socialising with other students, but she had had excellent teaching in Montevideo. And in New York she also learned but this time it was learning what style of piano playing did not suit her, she described it as 'horrible; everything was intellectual, it was all predetermined. This emotionless way of playing that was taught there was nothing for me. In any case, I can’t play that way. And in retrospect: you have to know and recognize what you do not want. And I learned that.' But in the period running up to her winning the Clara Haskill Competition she had master-classes and private lessons from Geza Anda, and learned a style of playing which suited her relaxed technique.

This relaxation had a physical origin, when playing she sat bent slightly forward but with her back straight. She said, 'everything must be rooted in the spine because it supports the entire body. Only then can one’s playing be truly free. This looseness is important for the sound. Because if you tense your arms or shoulders, the harmonics of the other strings don’t come out so well. But if you’re relaxed, then the keyboard, right up to the mechanics, is a natural extension of the arms. Then the sound and the piano itself simply blossom.' For anyone who has studied Alexander Technique, this sounds like something remarkably similar.

Dinorah Varsi
She wasn't interested in intellectual analyses of the works, she was purely instinctive in her reactions and in fact over analysis could disturb her and stop her playing a particular piece (as happened with some of the Schubert Impromptus). When it came to recordings she was something of a perfectionist, she did not release her first recording of Schumann's Kreisleriana in the mid-1960's because of a dull sound and flattening of dynamic differentiations.

It is easy to emphasise the musical qualities, but it should be remembered that when she came to Europe she had a very full and rounded education including an enthusiasm for the novels of Dostoyevsky. And she successfully managed her own finances through her career, she bought early shares in Yahoo!

A couple of quotes from Varsi herself are illuminating, they are taken from an interview which is published in the CD booklet. On being asked to whom she owed her skill at the piano and technique, her response was, 'Phew, that‘s a long story. First I studied in South America with Sarah Bourdillon. She was a follower of the French school, she had studied at the Ecole Normale in Paris. Then I came to Paris to continue studying in this direction, that is, the Cortot method. Then I went to Géza Anda in Switzerland. I was a lot in Germany, I listened to many of the old, very great, German pianists, in other words, Kempff and Backhaus and Schnabel and so on and then I had some of my own ideas. So it really is a mixture; I couldn‘t say that I represent one school or another.'. Then when being asked which artist she admired she said it wasn't a pianist, 'although I have very high regard of many, but for me Maria Callas is the ideal of how one should make music. I can’t take anything from her directly because she sings Verdi and Donizetti and she is not a pianist. And yet, this attitude of expressing the maximum, that is something one can adopt. For me, she is my musical paragon.'

The boxed set includes a substantial book with timelines, copious photographs, examples of Varsi's scores with her notes, and some very long articles covering her piano playing, her life and much else besides. It is quite an absorbing read.

There is a website devoted to the pianist (

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