INKPOT#101 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: CHOPIN Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2. Argerich/Montreal PO/Dutoit (EMI)

Fredric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op. 11
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op. 21

Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal conducted by Charles Dutoit

EMI Classics

[69:04] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans

Frederic ChopinThis is the second pairing of pianist Martha Argerich on EMI with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony. After their spectacular Prokofiev/Bartók CD (EMI 56654), I had seriously hoped that lightning would strike twice. Instead, any initial excitement over this project got washed out in the rain. Still, there is much to savor.

The lack of fire this time is not the fault of Martha Argerich. As in her Prokofiev and Bartók, she has supplanted some of her impetuousness for a slightly more legato approach that, to me, is musically more satisfying than in most of her previous outings. Much of the time, especially in her solo recordings, Argerich was too jumpy, too impulsive for me to enjoy. Exciting, yes, but not the kind of playing I would want to sit through more than once or twice.

In her most recent recordings, Argerich’s playing, while losing none of its freshness or spontaneity, has been maturing like a fine wine. The edginess that sometimes marred her playing, in my opinion, has mellowed a little, while losing none of its boldness. In fact, when the piano makes its entrance in the first movement of the E minor concerto, Argerich is very bold indeed, almost explosively so. There is also plenty of power in the Rondo, but again, the athleticism is more of a good-humored one.

At the same time, she is digging deeper into the music than before, and if anything, she is more impish and sparkling at times than she was in her other recordings of these concertos (with Claudio Abbado in the E minor and Mstislav Rostapovich in the F minor). Her playing in the Romanza of the E minor glows with an inner warmth, and she is not above using a little rubato to give the piano line a coquettish gait, playfully teasing our aural palates.

Even in the F minor concerto, which Argerich has not played as often or been as comfortable with in the past, there is a greater tendency to bend the melodic line here and there, add a different twist or flavor. Yes, it seems like she wants to get on with the proceedings faster than she did in the E minor, but she is willing to pause here, phrase a little differently there, and make things as interesting as possible for herself and us. She’s not just rushing here. She also slows down deliciously while playing the Larghetto, drawing out the cantabile quality, and we savor every note.

Argerich and DutoitIf Dutoit’s conducting were as fine an elixir as Argerich’s playing, we would have a truly fine vintage here. Unfortunately, we have water, not wine, from this part of the vineyard. Dutoit seems to be only going through the motions. His accompaniment is as gray and drab as a rain-filled sky, drenching any warmth, color, light or flavor out of the orchestra.

What’s worse, the engineers have made this release sound as waterlogged at Dutoit’s conducting. Instrumental details are so muffled, and the overall tone so sodden, that it sounds as if the engineers placed their microphones underwater. Only the piano is left high and dry, and perhaps that is part of the problem.

There is no balance between piano and orchestra, and very little of the teamwork or interplay between soloist and orchestra that made Prokofiev/Bartók such a delight. We get piano and precious little else. Part of this could be a lack of initiative on Dutoit’s part, but much of it appears to be the engineers’ doing. In focusing almost exclusively on the piano, they have turned a positive into a negative, giving us one bottle from which to sample instead of making available a complete tasting.

Is this the same team that gave these forces such clear, pristine sound on their previous release? If it isn’t, EMI needs to get that team back to Montreal post haste. If it is the same team, they need to do some serious retesting of their microphone placements before making another recording with these forces.

A critic recently discussing the Krystan Zimmerman recording of these concertos (DG 459684 ) suggested it would have been better to have Argerich as soloist, with Zimmerman conducting the Polish Festival Orchestra, and the Deutsche Grammophon engineers who supervised the Zimmerman recording in the control booth. That would have been a dream recording – a classic vintage, as far as wines go.

But even though the vintage here is not a classic, Argerich’s contribution still makes it a very fine one. Her rich, full-bodied performance transcends the flatness of the rest of this recording, lingering on the aural palate long after the last notes have faded. It is a memorable play of hints and flavors – one worth staying in the rain so as to take pleasure in every drop.

After writing this review, Jonathan Yungkans feels so sopping wet that he needs to get out in the California sun and dry out.

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