Sanna Vaarni’s Illustrious “Illustrazioni” by Jed Distler, Classics Today

This musically diverse representation of 20th-century piano music by Italian composers is a model of intelligent programming, scrupulous pianism, and committed musicianship. The dark impressionistic hues and sensual yet unsettled harmonic language of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s early Il raggio verde opens the recital, showcasing Finnish pianist Sanna Vaarni’s captivating fusion of firm rhythm and nuanced sensitivity. She takes time to sing out inner voices and soft high-lying passages, for example, in contrast to Jordi Masó’s harder-hitting approach. Likewise, she infuses Cipressi’s mellifluous melodic lines and sequences of trills with imaginative pedaling, and voices the impassioned chordal climaxes without a trace of banging (easier said than done!).

One might describe Sclesi’s Capriccio as Berg and Scriabin chopped up into quirky fragments; here Vaarni’s variety of articulations and marked dynamic contrasts proves more convincing than Donna Amato’s more generalized interpretation. Vaarni’s textural sculpting and vivid characterizations throughout the four Malipiero Risonanze have a naturalness and inevitability that contrasts to the exaggerated and often forced detailing of Gianluca Casciola’s DG recording. The mercilessly exposed piano writing throughout Dallapiccola’s classic Quaderno musicali totally benefits from Vaarni’s finely tuned gradations of touch and timbre. Her lithe and playful way with the canon in contrary motion, for instance, strikes a happy medium between Pietro Massa’s stern stolidity and Roberto Prosseda’s relaxed, conversational linear interplay.

If you like Poulenc’s piano music at its most succinct and witty, you’ll find Nino Rota’s 15 Preludes irresistible. As much as I admire Vaarni’s clear and meticulous execution (perfect scales, spot-on embellishments), I slightly prefer the crisper rhythmic drive and deadpan humor that Jimmy Brière brings to his Analekta recording. But Vaarni understands and internalizes the gnarly mysticism of Sclesi’s Quattro illustrazioni. Indeed, she’s one of the few pianists to stress the melodic core buried within Avatàra’s clusters. A first-class production on every level, highly recommended.


Review by: Jed Distler