TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.1. Nutcracker Suite. Argerich/Berlin PO/Abbado (DG) – INKPOT
Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, op.23
Nutcracker Suite (arr. Economou), op.71a*
Martha Argerich piano I
*Nicolas Economou piano II
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado
Live Recording (Op.23)
Recorded 1983 (Op. 71a) and 1994 (Op.23)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 449 816-2
by Jonathan Yungkans
Martha Argerich’s finest Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto – that has been the consensus since this recording was released, and for good reason once you compare all four of her recorded performances. Her performance with Kazimierz Kord on CD Accord erupts volcanically; though soloist and orchestra are not always in sync, the Vesuvian outpourings are thrilling in their own right. Her recording with Kirill Kondrashin (Philips 446673) emphasizes Tsar-like nobility, but not at the expense of passion or excitement, while her collaboration with Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic (DG 453572 – 4 discs – and 453566 – 11 discs) takes a stately, slightly more genteel approach that comes across at times like grand opera. Each of these three performances is vastly different and satisfying.
However, with Claudio Abbado, Argerich’s fellow former-student under pianist Friedrich Gulda and the conductor with whom she has collaborated most frequently, we have the best of Kord, Kondrashin and Dutoit rolled into one performance. I would not want to be without the other recordings, but if I had a choice of one Argerich Tchaikovsky recording, this would be it. There is nobility, lyricism and ardor in equal measure, along with a rapport and meshing of ideas that is second to none, combining operatic breadth with an intimacy that comes across like a conversation.
Even in the first-movement introduction, there is an incredibly vocal shaping to the string line, seconded by Argerich’s entry after the big chordal opening. Soloist and orchestra constantly listen to one another, matching phrasings and dynamics as though actually commenting on what one or the other is expressing. There are still dramatic moments – what Argerich performance is usually without them? – but they flow more naturally than usual since they are more closely integrated into the general fabric of the performance. Whenever Argerich turns up the heat, Abbado is fully at her side.
Take the orchestral build-up midway in the first movement, just before the piano re-enters, crashing down the keyboard. Kord is explosively tense, as though the music is going to blow apart at any moment. Kondrashin is brazen, imperious, commanding like a great boyar; the brass work by the Bavarian Radio Symphony has to be heard to believed. Dutoit is even more massive, almost monstrously so, which lends the playing an incredible degree of force. Yet Kord and Kondrashin take this passage at more-or-less standard tempo, and Dutoit at slower than standard. The unfortunate consequence in all three performances is that Argerich speeds away as soon as she enters, the tempo change invariably dissipating tension instead of increasing it.
Abbado avoids this trap handily. Starting more fleetly than the other conductors, Abbado coaxes the orchestra to continue phrasing vocally; the effect is not unlike a crowd scene from a great Russian opera, murmuring and wondering voices building to a head of tension. Abbado then quickens the pace, raising the temperature still more. By the end of the passage, he not only has the orchestra playing furiously but perfectly matches Argerich’s entry, which increases pressure to the breaking point instead of diluting it.
Between this recording and his Prometheus disc , I have renewed my respect for Abbado. Though he can still seem bland in purely orchestral works, he has invariably done a non-pareil job at accompanying soloists – not just Argerich, but also Ivo Pogorelich and Yevgeny Kissin, to name just two – and can come roaring to life when inspired. He listens to his soloists and goes out of his way to accommodate them, which is probably why he and Argerich are such a splendid match here.
Making this disc an even more attractive stocking stuffer is a two-piano arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite by pianist and conductor Nicolas Economou. Argerich has been at her most endearing when playing works based on children’s themes, such as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, and she and Economou do not disappoint in this suite. Dedicated to Economou’s daughter Semele and Argerich’s daughter Stephanie, the transcription is excellent, fully keeping the transparency and charm of the orchestral music, and deserves to be heard more often. Then again, anyone would have a hard time living up to this performance.
Argerich and Economou are clearly having fun as they scamper across the keyboards in the Overture. Their March is equally playful, the Sugar Plum Fairy very coy, while the Russian dancers practically set the stage on fire with their quickness and bounding energy in the trepak. The Arab dancers are exotic but assertive, a beguiling mixture; the Chinese, good-natured and bumptious, would put a smile on anyone’s face; and the reed-pipes are both witty and engaging. A seductively phrased Waltz of the Flowers brings this fairy tale to an elegant conclusion – a fitting tribute to both Tchaikovsky and Economou (who was tragically killed with his wife in a traffic accident in 1993), and all the more reason not to pass up this disc. As both a Christmas disc and exceptional music-making in general, this one is a classic.
16.01.20011.2001 Jonathan Yungkans
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