|Linking the works on this recording, other than the sense of occasion (more 1978 and 1979 ‘live’ performances from the Concertgebouw archives), is what the notes call a sense of romantic fantasy for the two major works presented. No one, for my money, has been better at capturing the innocent wonder of Schumann’s Fantasiestcke than Argerich. That fervent imagination has always been as strong an asset in Martha Argerich’s playing as her digital prowess, and one of her most endearing traits as far as I am concerned.
Just as the Fantasiestcke allow Schumann’s dual compositional nature to come to the fore, Argerich’s 1978 performances shows a contrasting turn to the studio version made two years earlier (EMI 63576 – mid-price, with the Fantasie in C). While the calm and isolation of the studio facilitates the timeless, daydream-like quality in which Eusebius thrives, the presence of the Concertgebouw audience encourages the stormier Florestan to romp and roughhouse more openly. Even so, an amazingly large amount of Eusebius’s nave, almost childlike awe thrives quite well there also.
Argerich allows “Des Abends” to sing gently while the longing sighs in “Warum?” are as quietly heart-tugging as ever. More passionate sections such as “Aufschwung,” and boisterously humored ones like “Grillen” and “Fabel,” gain in strength and intensity from the live setting; even though the studio version may be less harried in some passages, the extra charge in electricity is a worthwhile trade-off. If “Traumes Wirren” still goes by in too fast a blur for my comfort after repeated hearings, it is still extremely easy to become caught up in the moment.
Throughout, Argerich’s technique shines like a rapier in the sun, cutting cleanly and sharply into the heart of these eight pieces. Like a master swordsperson, there is nothing showy, but rather a near-balletic play of rhythms and passagework as she hits every note exact, no matter what speed she plays. Her tone flashes and glimmers but never takes on a hard or heavy edge, and even as fast as the music parries before us, she phrases its movements deftly and colors them with an innumerable variety of touch and hue.
This musical fencing extends itself to Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine. Cooler colored, more classically framed but no less engaging than what preceded it, one would normally expect this piece to show itself, to paraphrase Schumann’s comment on the Beethoven Fourth Symphony, as a slender Greek maiden between two giants. But the maiden more than holds her own here, with a trace of steel hidden amid her silks.
This polished glint soon manifests itself in the opening Mder, though the slower measures still capture some of the diaphanous quality of Ravel’s writing. The central minuet moves in a swirl of colors, and as the dance progresses, Argerich steadily slows the tempo, allowing the music to unfold like a page from a fairy tale. The final Anim is very much so-a whirlwind of movement, slightly brusque in a couple of its more animated measures but otherwise shimmering in luminosity, kaleidoscopic in continually changing colors and as consoling as a soft caress in its less agitated moments.
Argerich’s steeliness is even more apparent in Gaspard de la Nuit, with mixed results at first. Ondine is too tense to build atmosphere or drama, with a climax at 3:19 that comes across more as a sudden vomiting of notes than anything to which the playing has naturally led. The final flourish of the movement, at 4:48, comes off a little better, but the measures immediately seem to lose balance. Usually the adrenaline of a live performance works as a positive factor for Argerich, but here the opposite is true.
In Le Gibet, the uneasiness that sabotaged Ondine works here in its favor, adding desperation to the yearning I normally hear in the theme. The spookiness resulting from this combination, heightened further by the repeated B-flat tolling like some spectral bell, is enough to stand the hair on the back of your neck on end.
Scarbo dances furiously in Argerich’s hands, with the dark intensity of her playing as much exorcism or incantation as it is characterization. From the second set of chords, the depth of sound she brings forth from the keyboard seem as though she is conjuring the imp directly from the bowels of the earth. Even the quieter interludes quiver with a tension that refuses to let go of her or the listener, and only when the final measures fade can we breathe a sigh of relief.
The sound in all three performances is roughly the same as in the previous live Concertgebouw discs-reasonably full and clear enough for details to shine, even with some tape hiss. There are audience noises, most notably at the beginning of the Schumann, but the engineers adjust for it and the occasional coughs are generally not loud enough to intrude.
As a record of a larger-than-life event, one that is becoming increasingly rare these days, this disc is a must for Argerich fans and piano aficionados alike. Even with my qualms about Ondine, I would rather hear playing that takes chances like the ones captured here than the bland, timid and sometimes needlessly fussy efforts that pass from most other pianists’ hands today.
JONATHAN YUNGKANS once spotted a chocolate gremlin in a candy store window and found it too scary looking to want to eat.
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