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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Concerto for piano and orchestra in A minor op. 54 (1845)
Documentary [28.00] and Performance [35.00]
Martha Argerich (piano)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, Leipzig Gewandhaus, 1-2 June 2006
Documentary: directed by Angelika Stiehler, written by Martin Fell, produced by Günter Atteln and Paul Smaczny
Performance: directed by Michael Beyer, produced by Paul Smaczny.
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/ 16.9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo, DO 5.1, DTS 5.1
Languages: English, German, French and Spanish.
Notes in English, German and French.
EUROARTS 2056068 [63.00]



This DVD is part of the excellent Euroarts line: “Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music”. The series adopts a standard pattern: a documentary about the piece and the composer, followed by its performance. This is exactly the format here.
 
From the DVD menu, one can choose the performance directly and skip the documentary but that would be ill-advised. One should watch and listen to this introductory film at least once. It is informative as well as entertaining. The explanations are clear and aimed at both a knowledgeable viewer and a beginner who is interested in learning. The leading interpretation and explanation of the piece is made by Wulf Konold, a well known, established German musicologist and historian. He has had a long and distinguished career as a music advisor and director in various universities, opera and concert houses throughout Germany, as well as being an author of various books on music. He gives a detailed, pleasant and very interesting insight into Schumann’s beautiful and innovative concerto. He links it with the composer’s life and the fact that it was written for his wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, a virtuoso pianist and composer in her own right. Mr Konold’s explanations are in German, and if you speak the language I would advise you to ignore the English subtitles because you will lose, in the necessarily shortened translation, some of his appealing and enjoyable descriptions. Throughout the documentary, the explanations are illustrated with pictures of the relevant bars from the score, followed by the orchestra and the soloist playing those same bars. This is helpful and interesting both for the knowledgeable musician as well as for the learner or the absolute beginner. On the whole, this short film is a good, educational introduction to Schumann’s composition. This is suitably complemented by the booklet the notes from which are as informative as they are enjoyable to read.
 
The documentary is followed by the entire performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and no less than the illustrious Martha Argerich in a performance recorded live at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in June 2006.
 
Schumann started this concerto in 1841 and originally did not mean it to be a concerto in three movements. What he wrote was a Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in A minor because he was interested in an even-handed treatment of the orchestra and soloist, rather than a virtuoso piece. This reflects Schumann’s beliefs that a thematic unity among movements is of vital importance for orchestral and symphonic works. The Fantasy was to become the first movement of his piano concerto. He added the second and third movements four years later, in 1845, arguably because it would be easier to market if it was written in the traditional classic sonata format, with three movements. However the concerto is anything but traditional. In fact it was pioneering. Like so much of Schumann’s music, it clearly shows the composer’s shifting moods, but despite the interval between the composition of the first movement and the remaining two, inter-movement unity, as one of Schumann’s primary concerns, is an important characteristic of the piece and what makes it innovative.
 
The first movement, Allegro Affettuoso, is a complete work in its own right and could easily be performed as one independent piece, which is what Schumann originally intended when he created his Fantasy. It starts in a totally unconventional way: a dark introductory gesture by both the piano and the orchestra. Unlike what is customary in the classic format there is no contrast between the themes. Instead, to obtain a similar effect, Schumann changes the tempo of the theme and varies it, creating related themes, alternating deeply unhappy, depressing moments with a sober, restrained atmosphere. The second movement, which Schumann called Intermezzo and where the tempo is Andantino Grazioso, more than anything else demonstrates the importance of unity and of the concerto in a format which is not classical. It is almost as if the composer wrote two separate pieces - the first and third movements - and created the second, the Intermezzo, to link them. The final movement, Allegro Vivace, is the part that more than the other two displays a virtuoso character and where the skill of the pianist can be demonstrated to better effect.
 
Martha Argerich is outstanding from beginning to end, displaying a full understanding of the composer and of the piece. More than any other present day pianist, she combines unquestionable technical virtuosity with a deep insight into the composer’s feelings and emotions. She brings brilliantly to life the work’s wonderful lyrical romanticism. She is poetic in her delivery, particularly of the Intermezzo while at the same time fully comprehending and expressing throughout the unified dialogue with the orchestra. In the finale, she launches with delight in the virtuosic passages performing them with intrinsic, exquisite beauty. She always brings to bear such fluid, liquid dexterity that one believes it is easy to play and that each of us could sit at the piano and deliver the same kind of performance. Ms Argerich’s playing literally flows out of her as of it were a natural extension of her hands and arms. She is simply wonderful and her performance every bit as stunning in her mature years as when she dazzled the world at the age of 16, winning within three weeks both the Geneva International Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition. Many words have been written about Argerich’s art and it is difficult to find anything to say that has not already been said in one way or another. She is one of my favourite pianists and possibly the greatest of this and the last century. I am sure she no longer prepares herself for a performance in the way she did for her first one ever, but the story, related below, does demonstrate her attitude. She was then only eight years old and played a Mozart concerto. Her piano teacher, Vincenzo Scaramuzza, stressed lyricism and feeling and he told her that when “the sound is empty it is like a pair of pants walking into a room with nothing inside them”. Afraid of not being able to live up to his expectations and fearing that she would give an empty, meaningless performance, little Martha made herself believe that if she missed a single note, she would explode. She did not miss a single note, being able to play with the same degree of confidence and excellence composers as diverse as Mozart, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Ravel and Shostakovich to name but a few.
 
The Gewandhausorchester Leipzig with conductor Riccardo Chailly rise to the challenge of accompanying Argerich. Their approach is truthful to the composition and to what Schumann was trying to achieve. Mr Chailly’s wonderfully expressive style of conducting really brings one into the sparkling atmosphere of the concert hall right from the first chords. He silently sings the notes along with the orchestra and the pianist, in the more vibrant passages, as well as in the more lyrical parts. He leads this historically rich orchestra, not only with his baton but also with his body, to expressively demonstrate where the score requires piano or forte playing or a slower or faster tempo.
 
The aspects described above are what makes a live performance on film, so much more enjoyable than a pure audio recording. You are not only listening to the glorious, beautiful sound of the music but you are also able to watch the artists, see their expressions, their feelings as they interpret the piece, the small nuances of their performances that single them out as performers, and also, at the end, their delight at the public’s recognition. The audience deservedly applauds for a long period of time, forcing Argerich, Chailly and the orchestra to take the six curtain-calls that we are able to witness. It is possible they took more that were not included in the DVD. The camera work is good and what you expect from a performance recorded live. The director alternates wide shots of the ensemble, sometimes including the audience, with close-ups of the conductor, the soloists within the orchestra and of Martha Argerich. Particularly enjoyable as well as showing an insight into her incredible artistry and fluid virtuosic playing, are the close-ups of her hands, gliding over the keyboard in dazzling fashion.
 
This DVD is a great recording of an equally great performance. If you have never witnessed Martha Argerich play live in concert, you must get this DVD. If like me, you are one of the privileged people who have seen and heard her live then you must have this DVD. It will be a wonderful souvenir that will stay with you forever.
 
Clara Wieck Schumann for whom the piece was composed and who gave it its premiere in 1845, in Dresden, would surely have approved of Chailly’s and the Gewandhausorchester’s lyrical approach. Most of all, I believe she would have been delighted with this wonderfully poetic interpretation of her husband’s piano concerto. She would surely agree that Ms Argerich does full justice to the composer’s brilliance and intentions.
 
Margarida Mota-Bull
 



 


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