Concert Review: Martha Argerich and Friends: Romantics 8 Nov 2022 | The Flying Inkpot
Martha Argerich and Friends: ROMANTICS
Tuesday, 8 November 2022, 8:15pm
WAGNER – Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 Ɨ
BRAHMS – Tragic Overture, Op. 81
SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
David Chen, piano (Beethoven)
Martha Argerich, piano (Schumann)
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Darío Alejandro Ntaca, conductor
Review by Derek Lim
In a career that’s spanned over 72 years, there must be precious little that hasn’t already been said about Martha Argerich. More than four years ago, she made her first appearance in Singapore in a stupendous, bristling performance of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto. This year, Altenburg Arts – a growing force in the classical music/piano scene – brought the great pianist to Singapore to headline a three-night series titled ‘Martha Argerich and Friends’, featuring not only friends, as such, but her family too – her daughter, the violist Lyda Chen-Argerich and her grandson, David Chen.
It is well-documented that contracts are not the way to go with Argerich, nor does she have herself booked years in advance for future performances. Equally well known is her propensity to change her programme and repertoire negotiation with her is an art.
As repertoire goes, tonight had perhaps the plum selection, with the Orchestra of the Music Makers under Argerich’s long-term collaborator, Dario Ntaca, to provide accompaniment in Beethoven’s first piano concerto with David Chen in the first half, and Schumann’s piano concerto with Argerich herself in the second.
After a brilliant Prelude to Act III from Lohengrin, with a reliably energetic OMM, Chen came on stage with Ntaca to great anticipation from the audience, for his debut performance in a full concerto. Those familiar with his grandmother’s own repertoire would know that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 is a piece she has played often, and which is still in her repertoire. Yet those straining to find similarities or comparisons between their approaches would be left with the impression that Chen has his own voice.
Despite his age (14), Chen eschewed youthful impetuousness for a perhaps slightly studied maturity. Blessed with a beautifully clear pellucid tone and an immaculate touch, the concerto was technically firmly under his grasp. Much of this relative inexperience showed in his interactions with the orchestra, which could have benefitted from more assertiveness when he was leading the musical direction.
Ntaca and the OMM served as able collaborators, but the balance was hugely in favour of the full orchestra which swamped Chen’s sound – decreasing the orchestra strings by about two stands would have evened out the balance between the soloist and band. One unusual element of Ntaca’s interpretation was the small Luftpaus that he took between the first and second note every single time the rondo theme returned in the third movement, which I found distracting and decreased the momentum of the music.
Unusually (considering his age) he seemed more at home in the chamber-like, lyrical sections of the music and there were several moments of spine-tingling beauty and lovely phrasing in his very musical performance. It was the outer movements which felt buttoned-up – he could definitely have had a lot more fun with the material and let it rip a bit in the Rondo. It was a promising debut and his future performances would surely benefit from continued experience and exposure!
After the intermission, the meaty Brahms Tragic Overture showed off the OMM to best advantage in this concert – it is a big piece that was played passionately, with great strings here. The details matter as much as the overall structure and Ntaca was probably better in the former – sometimes momentum felt lost as the music was driven to its conclusion.
At age 81, Argerich remains a miracle, a force of nature, music personified, if you will. There are musicians (Brendel, Schiff come to mind) for whom musical analysis is inescapable. For Argerich, one has the impression, on hearing her play (perhaps unfairly – I have no insight into her methods), that it comes like breathing – something that she has done all her life and has no intention of stopping.
After a false start (Argerich entered before the concertmaster had had a chance to let the orchestra tune, then charmingly played a few chords in A when she’d realised), it was on to the main event. It is difficult to imagine the Schumann more completely played by a soloist than it was tonight. An old hand at the piece, Argerich has both the musicality and the experience to make this old warhorse not just a breath of fresh air. With her, one feels like having stepped into a vista of endless possibilities, with her leaving no phrase unturned, nothing sounding tired or unoriginal.
From the get-go it was let’s roll up our sleeves, forget everything you know about Schumann’s piano concerto. This is the way it should be played. The fiery, mercurial Florestan was balanced seamlessly against the moody Eusebius with the ease that only an old pro could bring. None of that stodgy four-square Germanic approach – this was passionate, romantic music and Argerich made you know that. Ntaca and the OMM were with her, phrase for phrase.
The rippling arpeggiated section, radiantly beautiful and abetted by the wonderful flutes, was played at such a slow tempo that it would have failed in lesser hands. Here it felt always alive, never static – one felt Schumann’s deep love for Clara like a love letter written just yesterday. The immediate angry outburst following that was perfectly captured, the cadenza perfect.
The second movement Intermezzo was equally beautifully played, with lovely contributions from the cello section in their sighing, long-breathed melody. But more attention from Ntaca here would have gone a long way to ensuring the interplay between soloist and orchestra.
Argerich’s sometimes quasi-improvisatory approach (let’s hold this note just for a little longer, and stretch that phrase just a bit), though always illuminating and completely musical, made it at times challenging to follow, to say the least. It is no slight on Ntaca and the OMM, who were her capable, and in general, responsive, partners in the first and second movements, though in third movement Allegro vivace, this was more difficult. Still, all was well as Argerich led the musical proceedings, hurtling toward the double bar lines, and bringing the concerto to a fiery close, rewarding the audience who gave a standing ovation, with two encores – Schumann’s ‘Von fremden Männern und Ländern” and Bach’s Bach English Suite in G minor BWV 808 Gavotte i – Gavotte II ou la musette, played “attacca”. A perfect selection to end a perfect evening.
Is it too much to hope that this festival will become a permanent fixture in our musical calendar?