Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, ‘St. Anthony Variations’, Op. 56b [17:09]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [31:56]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Grand Rondeau in A major, D 951 - Allegretto quasi Andantino [11:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse - poème choréographique [12:09]
Martha Argerich (piano); Nelson Freire (piano)
rec. live, September 2009, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8570 [72:27]

Deutsche Grammophon present an exciting duo recital from Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire recorded live at the 2009 Salzburg Festival. These are superb players who are at the top of their profession thrilling and entertaining audiences throughout the world and on record.  
Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, ‘St. Anthony Variations’ composed in the summer of 1873 consists of a theme, eight variations and a finale. It was originally written in its version for two pianos designated opus 56b and later orchestrated by the composer as opus 56a. There is some dispute as to whether the theme taken from a set of wind divertimenti is actually by Haydn. The score is best known today by the title Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale based on a hymn tune Chorale St. Antoni sung by pilgrims on St. Anthony's Day which is taken from second divertimenti of the set.

The empathy between Argerich and Freire is evident right from the opening of the first movement. What a magnificent theme it is too. Feather-light sensitivity permeates the fourth variation an Andante, and the playing of variation five marked Poco presto is buoyant and full of vitality. I enjoyed the sturdy and resilient variation six Vivace and I found that variation seven marked Grazioso contains all the sentimentality of a child’s nursery. One or two rough edges at the conclusion are delivered by the duo owing to an excess of enthusiasm and vigour.

Rachmaninov’s last published work is his Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 completed at Long Island whilst in exile in the USA in 1940 and was first scored by the composer in a version for two pianos. This wonderful score was originally named the Fantastic Dances with the three movements carrying descriptive titles ‘Mid-day’, ‘Twilight’ and finale ‘Midnight’ which contains Rachmaninov trademark Dies Irae or ‘Day of Wrath’ theme from the Latin Requiem Mass. I especially enjoyed the sparkling and determined playing from Argerich and Freire in the opening movement Non Allegro. Their characterful interpretation in the Andante, in nature a sinister waltz, easily shifts from the bright and uplifting to the dark and moody. Feeling like the spiritual core of the score the closing movement is noteworthy for its relentless driving rhythms with episodes of calm reflection.

The Grand Rondeau in A major, D 951 by Schubert for one piano, four hands marked Allegretto quasi Andantino was composed in June 1828. It received its posthumous publication later that year as opus 107. Argerich and Freire make light work of the Grand Rondeau playing with tremendous intimacy and refined expression.

Ravel composed La Valse, un poème choréographique (a choreographic poem) during 1919/20. It was intended as a ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes who rejected it as "un-theatrical." Ravel wrote that La Valse was, "a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled in my mind with the idea of destiny's fantastic whirl." This is the composer’s own version for two pianos. Throughout the score I was struck by the chimerical drama generated by the undercurrent of anxiety and fear that is overlaid by the extrovert and frivolous waltz melodies.

The Deutsche Grammophon engineers have provided a first rate recording with a impressive balance. I found the essay in the booklet to be well written, however, I would have preferred more information on the actual works rather than inconsequential ramblings about piano stools etc. This feels like a thrilling live recital from the Grosses Festspielhaus at Salzburg. Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire are a formidable partnership their playing contains a sparkling artistry together with that innate ability to communicate so remarkably with the audience.

Michael Cookson