EMI has reissued a series of its classic recordings at mid-price
all of which were praised by the Gramophone and Penguin Guides.
The disc under review here is part of that series. It is interesting
to note that in the current Penguin Guide this recording does
not receive the accolades that some of its competitors in all
three works do, although it is generally given a positive spin.
No matter. Any performance by Martha Argerich is cause for celebration
or at least a high level of interest. This one is no exception.
She has always shown a real affinity for Prokofiev, and her Bartók
is no slouch either. As to be expected, she is partnered extremely
well by Dutoit and the Montréal orchestra. What’s there not to
like! Well, if there were no other recordings of these works to
be had, one could be very satisfied. However, in all three concertos,
especially the “Thirds,” there is plenty of competition.
In Prokofiev’s First Concerto, among Argerich’s strongest
competition are Ashkenazy/Previn on a Decca Double of all five
concertos and Kissin/Abbado (DG). Argerich finds more lyricism
in the concerto than does Ashkenazy, but less brilliance. Nevertheless,
her pianism is pretty astonishing throughout. The slow movement
is especially lovely. I haven’t heard the Kissin recently, but
recall being impressed by it when it was first issued. Argerich
and the orchestra are well balanced here as they are in the
other two concertos, and Dutoit for the most part provides exemplary
support by allowing the music to speak for itself.
The disc ends with Prokofiev’s Third, one of Argerich’s
signature works. Her famous recording with Claudio Abbado and
the Berlin Philharmonic for DG is still available and for most
listeners will probably be the greatest competition for this
one. It is a scintillating performance that does not let up.
If the newer one seems more relaxed, it brings more variety
to the central, slow movement variations and more romantic warmth
to the big tune in the finale. Nevertheless, the excitement
produced in the earlier encounter with the work is never quite
reached here. That 1967 recording still sounds amazing. Argerich
adds about two and a half minutes to the later performance,
which is partly responsible for this impression. Both accounts
are superior to almost anyone else’s in this particular work.
I was less taken with her Bartók, which is sandwiched
between the two Prokofiev concertos on the CD. The competition
is even fiercer for this work. Although she holds her own as
far as her technical mastery is concerned, I didn’t sense the
same sympathy that she shows for Prokofiev. My yardstick for
this work, as for Bartók’s other two piano concertos, remains
the classic recording by Géza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay recorded
in 1959 for DG and still sounding fresh today. True, the recorded
sound has begun to show its age, but the performances carry
all before it. There is something instinctive about the way
native Hungarians bring out the Magyar rhythms in Bartók’s music
that eludes most other performers. A recent recording of all
three concertos on DG with three different pianists and orchestras,
all conducted by Pierre Boulez is instructive here. While I
admire all three pianists (Kristian Zimerman, Leif Ove Andsnes,
and Hélčne Grimaud) and am generally taken with the performances,
I always go back to Anda when I want to hear the real thing.
Argerich, however, compares well with Grimaud, and anyone wanting
these particular works on one CD need not hesitate.
This disc can be recommended, then, particularly for
the Prokofiev and for all Argerich fans. I have never heard her
give less than a sterling performance. Indeed, she does not disappoint
here. Julian Haylock’s notes in the accompanying booklet are informative