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S & H Concert Review

Ravel, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky Martha Argerich (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Emmanuel Krivine, Royal Festival Hall, Saturday, March 20th, 2004 (CC)


Concerto performances by Martha Argerich in the UK - being the rare occasions they are – inevitably mean packed concert halls, and so it was at the Festival Hall on Saturday. Ms Argerich seems to have the world at her feet - does this mean, therefore, that she gets to pick her conductors? One would assume so, yet there seemed a massive chasm between Argerich’s facility and her identification with Prokofiev, and the superficial account the LPO gave of the accompaniment under Krivine. Perhaps the clarinet ‘bump’ in the introduction (as it reached the highest note of its phrase and the strings entered) was a mere accident, but the perfunctory account of the Theme (of the Theme and Variations second movement) could not have been on purpose. Only in the finale was there any sense of abandonment from the orchestra - it lagged a full two movements behind Argerich! Even when piano and orchestra exchange off-beats in an impassioned dialogue in the first movement (normally one of the most exciting passages), the orchestra was lacklustre.

Argerich was, interpretatively, in a different universe. If there is one element of this performance to take away, it is the sheer variety of touch Argerich brought out from within Prokofiev’s score. True, Argerich’s martellato set the adrenalin full steam ahead (it was properly martellato - this hammer has a mistress!) and the finale showed on occasion what a huge sound she can make. But there were also moments of magical soft playing (here is one pianist not afraid to play pianissimo, or quieter). Her trill that opens the piano’s contribution to the second movement was a model of evenness, and I for one would happily sell my soul to the Devil to play the ensuing scale like that - just the once! The sheer blackness of the close of the second movement came as a revelation (as did the lyric climax of the last movement, which sounded unsettlingly like a nod in the direction of Messiaen). The energy of the final pages evidently transferred to the audience, as the ovation was (perhaps predictably) massive.

What a shame about the rest of the concert, though. Moments of delight in Ravel’s Alborado del grazioso (in the form of light oboe and characterful bassoon solos) were scuppered by an over-zealous percussion section that drowned out anything else playing at the time. A shame also, that this question has to be asked - had they even rehearsed Mussorgsky’s Pictures? Or was the orchestra in such a state of shocked awe after Argerich had graced them with her presence that they simple couldn’t play? Or did they simply not care less?

I suspect the latter. Never have I heard such a blatant wrong entrance from a professional orchestra as the one an over-eager violinist provided us with. The edges of ‘Gnomus’ were softened; the horn player who provided the second Promenade sounded ill… Why did Krivine put enormous breaks in between pictures (before ‘Tuileries’ and before ‘Two Polish Jews’)? Why did the marketplace at Limoges sound so down-beat (positively inanimate, in fact)? This is also the first time in my experience that ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’ failed to ignite at all; the ‘Great Gate’ was hardly resplendent (oh, and wind tuning took a holiday, too). This was worse that a rehearsal run-through. In hindsight, we should all have left at the interval. We would have taken away finer memories.

Colin Clarke



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