Argerich plays Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Bach, Chopin, Scarlatti & Ginastera. Warsaw NPO/Kord (Accord) – INKPOT

Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY(1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Robert SCHUMANN(1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Bourees I and II – English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807

Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka in F minor, Op. 63 No. 2

Domenico SCARLATTI(1685-1757)
Keyboard Sonata in D minor, Kk. 141/L. 422

Alberto GINASTERA(1916-1983)
Danza de la Moza donosa From Danzas argentines, Op. 2

Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by
Kazimierz Kord

‘live’ recording. Notes in English and Polish

CD Accord 011 305-2
[74:01] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
In concertos, Martha Argerich has usually preferred collaborating with personal acquaintances, such as Claudio Abbado and Charles Dutoit, or with conductors with which she has had a long professional relationship, such as Kazimierz Kord. Argerich has known Kord since the 1965 Chopin Competition, when he accompanied her in a blistering interpretation of the Chopin E minor concerto (available on Laserlight 14061 – budget-price – with her competition performance of the C sharp minor Scherzo and an equally commendable F minor concerto played by Adam Harasiewitz).

By the same token, Argerich’s concerto performances fall into two categories. The first comprises of those appearances in which she either accedes to the conductor’s wishes for slower tempi than is her preference (her recordings with Dutoit), or toning down her approach in keeping with the period of music she is playing (her Concertgebouw performance of Mozart’s B flat Concerto, K. 503). In either case, Argerich usually compensates by exploring many other facets of the music, playing with a combination of grace, charm and spontaneity that is as refreshing as it is occasionally unexpected.

The second, more common category is that body of performances in which Argerich is allowed full rein. In these performances, the huntress strides forth, hair swept back in the wind, ready for hand-to-hand combat with her prey. In faster passages she charges in a deliriously mad adrenaline-pumping assault, but is gentler, playful and even loving in quieter moments. Those performances include her many recordings with Abbado and her recent appearances with Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

This recording, recorded live in 1979 and 1980, clearly falls into the second, more extroverted sphere of Argerich playing. Originally issued by Polskie Nagrania and occasionally appearing on pirate labels since then, the sound on these transfers is extremely good – cleaner and fuller-bodied than the recent ‘live’ Concertgebouw releases on EMI, and nearly as good as Deutsche Grammophon’s studio recordings of the same period.

From the opening of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, we are served notice that La Martha is in take-no-prisoners mode. Even so, no one has alternated power, lightness, lyricism and mounting passion so deftly – and this is just in the introduction! Kord and the orchestra give equally passionate support, but Argerich is already speeding ahead at the end of the introduction. This may not be the most unified performance of this concerto, but it certainly will not be a dull one.

Details and points of interest abound – little highlighted notes and turns of phrase that breathe life and rhythm into otherwise four-square passages; micro-pauses and shadings of tone color that add tension and mystery; quicksilver passages that, even in mezzo forte, are more compellingly weighed and paced than most pianists’ thunderings. For all the excitement in the more dramatic moments – and no artist delivers thrills more consistently than Argerich – the most compelling episodes in her performance are the quieter ones, where she explores aspects of the music where few, if any, others have gone.

Of course, any conductor with such a soloist is in grave risk of being overshadowed, if not upstaged altogether, but Kord more than holds his own. He is as searching in orchestral detail as Argerich is in the solo part, and can be equally yearning and dramatic. Few maestros make the central orchestral interlude in the first movement as weighty or compelling, even with the soloist’s dramatic re-entry in double octaves at twice his tempo. Kord gets left behind from time to time, but not to worry; he lets Argerich go her way and catches up, totally unfazed, letting the orchestra play as arrestingly as she does without a hint of strain, and with power and finesse to match.

Soloist and conductor are infinitely more together in the Schumann Concerto. Argerich has played this piece more frequently in recent years – it was this concerto that she played with the San Francisco Symphony, first in Davies Hall, then on the orchestra’s European tour in the summer of 2000 (including a London Proms concert that was, thankfully for many of her fans, broadcast live over the Internet). It is also not a composition of which I have thought highly over the years, especially the final two movements (written four years after the first), which have never seemed on the same level of inspiration as the opening Allegro affectuoso. But once in a while you come across a performance that changes your mind about such a piece of music, and this performance is one of them.

This performance is very similar to the London Proms concert in overall shape – by turns brilliant, mysterious, fervent and good-humored – without the occasional harried quality of the latter. In other words, it conveys the elusive and mercurial essence of Schumann’s music perfectly, with fresh insights softly illuminated at every turn, and with the music given ample time to take wing and soar without losing shape or impetus.

At the same time, Kord’s greater attention to cadenced and interpretive detail makes him a much more satisfying partner than Tilson-Thomas. While Tilson-Thomas underlines the romantic mystery of this concerto, his accompaniment sounds overly refined, the rough edges smoothed away a little too much to give more than a general outline of the piece. Kord concentrates on passion, finding greater depth and more gradations of expressiveness while exposing the musical fine points that hold this work together. In that sense, Kord (right) and Argerich are a perfect match.

As in the Tchaikovsky, Argerich and Kord’s attention to particulars unearths a plethora of half-lights, delicate hues and fragile shadows that accentuate the varying moods of this piece as though looking through a slowly turning kaleidoscope. There is an added freshness and child-like innocence in Argerich’s playing, particularly in the Intermezzo, that conveys itself most purely in Schumann (the same qualities that make her Kinderszenen one of the best recordings she has made to date), which makes the concerto an added joy to hear.

Argerich also highlights subtle rhythmic and motivic details, which in Schumann’s case further tightens the overall structure and makes the music seem more than the sum of its parts than usual. I had honestly not before realized how closely Schumann patterned his concerto after Beethoven’s Waldstein and Appassionata, nor how magically the few bars of transition between the Intermezzo and Finale actually work, again like Beethoven’s sonatas, until this recording. Then again, it sometimes takes a performance as special as this one to bring you face to face with facts like those.

The four encores are old friends – performances of three of them appear on Argerich’s solo Concertgebouw CD – but are most welcome here. Her Bourees I and II from Bach’s Second English are more tightly wound and relentless here, which does not work to their benefit, but they still fascinate in their own way. The Chopin Mazurka in F minor is much more aptly paced, with a melancholy charm framing an infectious middle section. The Scarlatti Sonata in D minor is the best Argerich performance of this piece that I have yet heard. The notes still fly in a blizzard-like flurry, but slowed enough to lend the piece a great deal more charm, weight and intrigue. And the Danza de la Moza donosa, the third of Ginastera’s Danzas argentines, is given an added touch of ardor and fragility, making it all the more winsome, as well as the perfect ending to a wonderful program.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS is not an undivided Martha-phile – so far. But there’s hope for him yet.

776: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans

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