Argerich ‘live’ from the Concertgebouw 1978 & 1979 (EMI) – INKPOT
Live From the Concertgebouw 1978 & 1979
|EMI Classics 56975-2
| I love very much to play the piano, but I don’t like to be a pianist.
It so happens that I don’t enjoy very much being alone. And I don’t like the loneliness on stage.
— Argerich to Diego Fischerman, Revista Classica, 1999
Those seeming contradictions – loving the act of playing while simultaneously shunning the celebrity and experiencing the loneliness that comes from it – have defined Martha Argerich from the beginning of her career. She is perhaps the only pianist since the death of Vladimir Horowitz commanding a near-divine mystique once reserved for pianists like he and Franz Liszt – an aura that falls somewhere between creator and magician, with tempestuous powers conjured from the keyboard.
Yet Argerich has been, if anything, a reluctant wizard. Until she played her benefit recital in Carnegie hall earlier this year for the John Wayne Cancer Institute, she had not played a solo recital since 1983, and she has not recorded a solo program since 1984. Her abhorrence of the loneliness on stage has basically silenced her, elevating her powers to the status of myth, as it did for Horowitz, but robbing us mortals of seeing and hearing that craft for ourselves. This disc, then, taken from recitals at the Concertgebouw in 1978 and 1979, serves as a reminder of what we have been missing all this time, and is a valuable document of the sorceress at work.
The magic begins with a Bach Partita No. 2 that comes across as edgier, higher-strung and more electric than her studio recording for Deutsche Grammophon. It shares the delicate tints and rhythmic vitality of the DG, but there is a nocturnal quality added that highlights the play of colors in this piece, as well as a heightened sense of drama. The DG can be appreciated for its greater poise, but the live version bewitches no less compellingly with its own spell. The Sarabande, taken at a markedly slower tempo than the movements preceding it, is especially spellbinding; with no loss of tension, it gains all the more in gentle songfulness.
Argerich’s Chopin has always been a challenge for some, an exhilarating delight for others, and all for the same reason. She is ferocious in the more athletic aspects of this music, as though conjuring a storm – something the frail composer would probably have wanted the ability to do himself, according to some accounts – but utterly ravishing in the more lyric pieces. It’s a heady brew that can be more than some can comfortably take in its entirety, while others become caught up in its delirious effects.
Her playing of the C minor Nocturne begins seductively, but soon becomes the stuff of dark tragedy. It is perhaps a little too heart-on-sleeve, but Argerich’s earnestness is hard to resist. It reminded me of Truffaut’s film The Story of Adele H., a melodramatic 19th-Century tale of a woman, Adele, who becomes obsessed with a French army officer and follows him from station to station, losing all sense of reason in the process. As much Adele wears down the viewer’s patience, you cannot help but be moved by her plight. The same goes for this performance of the nocturne.
The C sharp minor Scherzo that follows is Argerich in full Prospero mode. The winds blow, the waves rise, and we are engulfed in a hurricane of music. The lyric episodes glisten like jewels taken from the bottom of the ocean, but the gale still blows around us, and there is little, if any, repose. This is Chopin as force of nature, both awesome and frightening — not something in which to comfortably bask, but a place to test ourselves in the elements.
Bartók was not a composer I had associated with Argerich until her splendid performance of the Third Piano Concerto with Dutoit (EMI 56654 – full-price). Her powerful, rustic but emphatically not percussive performance of the Sonata proves the Third Concerto was not a one-shot deal. It is propulsive enough to give the folk-dance rhythms a real swing in the outer movements, yet gauged expertly enough to give the music a full variety of dynamics, tone color and emotion. This is perhaps the most compelling performance of the Sonata on disc, and one that shows how much this work deserves a greater advocacy.
The same could be said for Ginastera’s Danzas argentines, a set of three miniature tone poems so evocative of the pampas that you can almost smell the grass and soil beneath your feet. The “Dance of the Old Cowherd,” with its Prokofiev-like passagework, is both humorous (again, in the Prokofiev vein) and haunting. The “Dance of the Delighted Young Girl,” evoking a winsome charm, has a tune that will stay in your head for days after you hear it. And the “Dance of the Artful Gaucho,” fearsome in its galloping octaves, gives way in its middle section to a high-spirited cowboy round-up reminiscent of the best of Aaron Copland. Argerich’s commanding performance sweeps all before it.
When I first saw this CD, I had some concerns about listening to three heavyweight modern pieces in a row – the Bartók, Ginastera and the Prokofiev Sonata No. 7. Wouldn’t that be too much of a good thing without a break? As it turned out, not really. There is enough diversity of mood within these three works to keep away any hint of monotony, and enough of a stylistic similarity that they actually complement one another. Besides, we would have been utterly unprepared for this Prokofiev Seventh if it would have followed Chopin or Schumann.
This is a piece that has been closely identified with Argerich for much of her career, and she plays it with a take-no-prisoners attitude, with a particularly brutal left-hand passage 17 seconds into the work that will lift you out of your chair. Even in the Andante and the inquieto sections of the first movement, there is a palpable uneasiness, as though a bomb were going to explode at any moment. No one has raced through the louder passages of this piece with the speed and ferocity Argerich brings here, nor made that barely-controlled violence work so convincingly. No one has conjured a stronger vision of terror in this work, nor communicated it in such vivid detail.
Two encores follow the Prokofiev. The Scarlatti Sonata in D minor dates to Argerich’s childhood days, and she plays it with absolutely clarity, and maximum velocity. The Bouree from Bach’s English Suite No. 2 also goes by in a flash, perhaps too quickly (and starts at a noticeably lower volume than the other pieces until the engineers give it a boost), but like other feats of enchantment is not gauged to outstay its welcome. Like fairies or other such beings, it is heard as though in a glance and is gone.
The sound is generally good for a “live performance” CD, with some tape hiss and nary a peep from the listeners most of the time Argerich is playing. Only at the start of the Bach Bouree does audience noise intrude, and that is quickly taken care of. All in all, it’s a small price to pay for having Argerich’s personal and potent brand of magic appear before your ears – an enchantment that materializes all too rarely these days, and disappears far too quickly.
Conjuring was never one of JONATHAN YUNGKANS strong points, though he can make Ben & Jerry’s ice cream disappear very easily.
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770: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans
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