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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat op.19 [28:11], Piano Concerto no.3 in c op.37 [35:43]
Martha Argerich (piano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Recorded live at the Teatro Communale di Ferrara, 2/2000 (no.2), 2/2004 (no.3)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5026 [64:00]

Though Claudio Abbado has provided distinguished collaborations (an Abbado accompaniment is always so much more than just that) with a wide range of pianists over the years, two in particular go back to his very earliest years, giving them the value of childhood friendships which have grown and matured with time. In the case of Maurizio Pollini there is perhaps little cause for surprise – they were the two great white hopes of the Italian music establishment at much the same time, and furthermore share a liking for a coolly intellectual approach, purified of romantic excess, with textural and architectural clarity high up on their agendas.

In the case of Martha Argerich one might suppose that the fiery impulsiveness, the sheer daring of this fascinating pianist, surely the greatest of her generation, might leave Abbado gasping for breath, but time and again they have shown that their complimentary qualities rub sparks off each other in exactly the right way.

A good deal of "period practice" seems to have entered into Abbado’s Beethoven these days, with brusque accents, swells on long-held string notes and an absence of vibrato in moments such as the introduction to the Adagio of no.2. But, if at times it crossed my mind that I might, listening blind, have identified Harnoncourt as the conductor, then I hope I would have remembered in time that Harnoncourt’s performances of these works with Aimard take a very free view of tempi which Abbado does not countenance, and furthermore, Abbado’s sharp attacks are never ugly, which Harnoncourt’s often are. And what a wonderful vitality he obtains, for instance, from the bubbling cello counterpoint near the beginning of no.2.

Argerich does not, I think, trouble herself with "period practice" considerations and her extreme vitality (which does not mean she is actually so very fast) may remind us of Rudolf Serkin who, among the great pianists of the past, was the one who sought to convince us of the value of no. 2 (of which the composer himself was in some doubt) by simply galvanizing it into life. However, Ormandy’s sleekly upholstered accompaniment for the best known of Serkin’s recordings suggests why a dose of period practice had to come. Against this darting vitality, the Adagio is very profoundly expressed, the poetry of the piano-orchestra exchanges towards the end standing as a touchstone to some four decades of collaboration.

The third concerto is new to the Argerich discography, a work she had played only twice before, more than twenty years ago. The booklet notes frankly admit that she was in some doubt right to the end whether actually to go on stage and play it. I’m very glad she did. Here, the tempi in the outer movements are a little on the slow side, but caution is clearly not the reason, for there is still that immense vitality in the passage-work while the more lyrical moments are lovingly expressed without any need to adopt a slower tempo. The first movement is proudly majestic, the Largo is once again full of liquid tone and poetic insights; perhaps in another twenty years’ time she will find the same playfulness in the finale with a tempo which avoids the occasional sense of heaviness, but overall it’s a gem of a performance.

With fine, lifelike recording and the live audience making itself felt only at the end, this is a CD which shows that there can be a point in recording these repertoire works again; it is surely one of the Beethoven discs of the 21st century which will still be listened to in the 22nd.

Christopher Howell

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