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Martha Argerich and Friends:
Live from the Lugano Festival 2009

rec. June 2009, Lugano, Switzerland. DDD
See complete tracks and performers listed after the review.
EMI CLASSICS 6073672 [3 CDs: 72:43 + 75:09 + 72:35]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the seventh box in a row from the annual Lugano Festivals, and the quality shows no sign of decline. We get more or less what we have always had: from undisputable masterpieces to unknown works, mostly piano and strings (no woodwind), some piano four-hands (and even six-hands) and one concertante work. This year the music is predominantly Romantic, which gives this sequence a stronger sense of unity than before.

In the three of the works on Disc One Martha Argerich takes the driver’s seat, and the other performers have the tricky task of catching up with her. They do manage it, and some even try to out-Argerich Argerich. This results in energetic and somewhat rough performances. Such competitiveness works excellently for Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise brillante, with Gautier Capuçon. The piece shines and sparkles like gold in the sun and has an unceasing forward momentum. I cannot imagine a better performance, and join in the well-deserved applause in the end.

Argerich and the Capuçon brothers present an assured and expressive account of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke. True, this is not the finest of Schumann’s creations. Each part raises a question “Didn’t he already write it somewhere else, and better?” But in Argerich’s hands no Schumann is bad. The musicians are gentle and yearning in the short opening Romance. In the Humoreske they excellently convey the down-to-earth spirit of the folksy dance, and the Romantic pathos of the mini-Kreisleriana in the middle episodes. It builds to an impressive Handelian climax. The pressure may be too hard, but there’s no brooking the energy of these players. The slow movement pours forth - a heartfelt love-song, where melancholy and longing are lit by a fleeting smile. This is like a mini-version of the slow movement of the Piano Quartet. The finale is not easy to manage: it is so similar in structure to the Humoreske. The framing episode is an energetic march, and the middle episodes are less interesting than in the Humoreske. The performers do their best but it emerges heavy and noisy. The closing coda comes as balm, with a shimmering fairy-tale glow.

I did not like the four-hand rendition of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Overture and Scherzo, played by Argerich and Cristina Marton. I do not feel the spirit of the piece, do not hear the light-footed elves. It’s all too hurried. Maybe the recording is too close: letting in a little mist would probably have helped. There is no magic, regrettably, just a lot of nimble finger-work.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Sextet was written before the Midsummer Overture, when the genius boy was 15. It combines the openness and candour of youth with virtuosity and mastery of form. The music is very Mozartean, and the performance, led by Khatia Buniatishvili, is a lacework of sunbeams. The piano throws showers of silver sparks around the violin’s lark-song in the first movement. The Adagio is tranquil and sunny, far from Schumann’s deep passions. The short and agitated Minuet is a sudden gust of cold wind. The finale is genuine Mendelssohn, a relentless bubbling stream of swinging excitement. The last two minutes are irresistible. The recording is rather dry and presents a concert-hall perspective, not especially spacious. The high strings sound thin. Still, this is an exciting performance of an undeservedly neglected work.

Disc Two is more diverse. It opens with Bartók’s Second Violin Sonata, exquisitely performed by Renaud Capuçon and Khatia Buniatishvili. Here the recording quality is first rate, and the listener is submerged into the center of the music. The violin soars, the violin cries, the violin purrs and roams around like a cat. The piano surrounds it with objects to jump on, and paints shadows in the corners. In the second movement the music gradually enters a boisterous dance, dark-hued and muscle-rolling, with sinister glances and dangerous leaps. It is long and winding, very Hungarian, and the ending returns us to the beginning of the Sonata. Renaud Capuçon is excellent. The performance does not have a trace of dryness, a quality so often associated with Bartók: the music plunges in and plumbs the depths.

Argerich and Mauricio Vallina return to the gallant times with Liszt’s two-piano Réminiscences de Don Juan. These are more musings and ruminations than a true paraphrase: a treat for those who can’t get enough of the small details of Mozart’s music, the harmonies, the twists of the tune, the melisma, the rhythms. These will be repeated and twisted and turned the better to view every facet of this music. For a 15-minute piece, Liszt takes into work a surprisingly small number of themes, but he is really thorough about exploring them. A wide range of emotions is covered: the dark rumbling depths of the Underworld, the mellifluous courtship of “La ci darem la mano”, the ecstatic hurry of the Wine Song. Argerich and Vallina present a leonine performance, unrushed, assured, well coordinated. They are so enthusiastic that the piece comes out more attractive than it probably deserves to be.

Each one of Lugano’s boxes had surprises. The 2009 has at least one big one, and I just can’t stop returning to it. I never imagined that a Glinka Sextet could be so much fun! I am pretty sure that this is Glinka’s Grand Sextet – but then what did they play under that name in 2007? Whatever. The music is as alluring and elegant as Mendelssohn at his best – and more compositionally effective than young Felix’s Sextet on Disc One. For instance, the double-bass really works here! But, however good the music is, it is the performance that carries the impress of greatness. Polina Leschenko leads the ensemble - a Brünnhilde leading a flock of Valkyries. The first movement has inextinguishable Rossinian drive. The playing is so fiery that it makes me wonder what kept the audience from applause at the end. OK, they are Swiss. The second movement starts in honey-sweet Romance, and then catches us off-guard with a tango – a true tango, no kidding! It’s given a twist, just a little bit, but the effect is jaw-dropping. The finale, marked Allegro con spirito, is really spirited, swinging between polonaise and polka. The playing is light and brilliant. The string instruments are recorded not as close as the piano, but still the recording remains vivid, and the sound is full enough.

Starting like the slow movement of the 2nd concerto – uncannily similar - the 6-hands Romance by the teenage Rachmaninov already contains the unmistakable traits of his mature style: the quiet swaying of harmonies, the bells, the wide flow of rapturous melody. The tiny Waltz, also for six hands, is unpretentious and naïve. It isn’t close to being great music, but it is pretty, and the performance of both pieces is light and natural.

Rachmaninov’s Russian Rhapsody is another early piece, a set of variations on a Russian theme. Some echoes of Tchaikovsky are audible. The performers, Lilya Zilberstein and Alexander Mogilevsky, are good in expressing the shy Romanticism of the more lyrical episodes. In the more energetic sections they never press too hard: even the loudest moments have delicacy. There is a lot of filigree work, of utter precision and coordination. Comparing this version with the more rough and “Russian” one by Alexeev and Demidenko (on Hyperion), Zilberstein and Mogilevsky are more on the salon side and less convincing. Each approach works well for this piece.

On Disc Three we come to what could become the brightest star in this collection: Argerich’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. It could attain that sort of fame but it falls short. What we get is more like Polovtsian Dances in the Gardens of Spain. The reading is bright, energetic, expressive – all of these probably in excess. It is beautiful, yes. But I grew up on the old de Larrocha/Comissiona recording. So I miss that lazy magic, the nocturnal breezes, perfumes that slowly spread through the air, not leap at you like a jack-in-the-box. Here we see dazzling Spain, no denying that – but what we miss are the Iberian Nights. Except, maybe, for the last half of Córdoba. The recording “from the side” does not help the case.

All this is even more noticeable when the direct neighbor is such a wonderfully atmospheric rendition of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. Prélude is an impressionistic walk through the night, with glimmering stars and a sudden breeze in the treetops. Malagueña rocks and rolls. Habanera is static and sensual. Finally, Feria is a festive fireworks display, with a slow, voluptuous middle section. I can’t praise enough the playing of Karin Lechner and Sergio Tiempo, their technical brilliance, balance and coordination, the understanding of the music, the subtlety and the energy.

This could form a great optimistic close for the collection. But in an interesting, non-standard move, the producers decided to end the disc with a dark and serious piece. Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No.1 starts with Bartók’s barbaric urgency and an almost orchestral wall of sound. Angry agitation alternates with soft, plaintive episodes. Some quarter-tones are employed, to unsettling effect. The slow movement is creepy and mysterious. Its dark steady progress is alarming and enthralling. The long final movement is almost Mahlerian. It starts as a disordered, menacing gallop, which after several diverse episodes consolidates into a frantic march of Doom. When the intensity becomes almost unbearable, we are suddenly swept along by a big Romantic wave. The gloomy landscape brightens. There is no full sun yet, but light behind the clouds. Despair gives way to hope. The quintet ends on a “maybe”.

We have another great performance here. Listening to it is one of those experiences that squeeze you out and leave you breathless but thankful: a revelatory, purifying experience. The recording quality is also on a high level, placing us right inside the conflict of sounds. This is one of those recordings where it’s impossible to stop in the middle.

Martha Argerich’s portraits on the Lugano boxes show more and more gray hair with each passing year. But her fire burns as high as ever, and it’s catching. Her friends are like her battle companions – faithful, trusty. The 2009 box has its weaker places, yet it maintains the high level of preceding years - and, unfortunately, the same minimal documentation. If you already own some of these, feel confident to add another bead to this shiny necklace. If you don’t have them yet, and you like chamber music – don’t hesitate. This is a colorful collection of chamber music, off the beaten path, played with enthusiasm, devotion, and an electricity that sparkles in these live performances. It also in many cases has the technical brilliance of the best studio recordings. And some performances are just stunning. I can’t wait for the 2010 box!

Oleg Ledeniov

Complete tracks and performers:
CD 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op. 88 (1842) [19:21]
Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (cello), Martha Argerich (piano)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night's Dream Incidental Music, Op. 21: Overture and Scherzo (1826/42) [14:56]
Martha Argerich, Cristina Marton (piano)
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Introduction and Polonaise brillante for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 3 (1828/30) [8:59]
Gautier Capuçon (cello), Martha Argerich (piano)
Sextet for Piano and Strings in D major, Op. 110 (1824) [29:14]
Khatia Buniatishvili (piano), Dora Schwarzberg (violin), Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg (viola),
Lida Chen (viola), Jorge Bosso (cello), Enrico Fagone (double bass)

CD 2
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for Violin and Piano No.2, Sz76 (1922) [21:22]
Renaud Capuçon (violin), Khatia Buniatishvili (piano)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Réminiscences de Don Juan for 2 Pianos, S656-R379 (c.1841) [15:30]
Martha Argerich, Mauricio Vallina (piano)
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Sextet for Piano and Strings in E flat major (1832) [22:28]
Polina Leschenko (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin), Géza Hosszu-Legocky (violin), Lida Chen (viola), Mark Drobinsky (cello), Enrico Fagone (double bass)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Romance and Waltz for Piano 6-hands (1891) [6:33]
Daniel Gerzenberg, Anton Gerzenberg, Lilya Zilberstein (piano)
Russian Rhapsody for 2 Pianos in E minor (1891) [9:02]
Lilya Zilberstein, Alexander Mogilevsky (piano)

CD 3
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Noches en los jardines de España (1911-1915) [23:23]
Martha Argerich (piano), Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Alexander Vedernikov
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Rapsodie espagnole (arr. for 2 pianos by the composer) (1907-1908) [15:17]
Sergio Tiempo, Karin Lechner (piano)
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Quintet for Piano and Strings No.1 (1921) [33:47]
Lilya Zilberstein (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin), Lucia Hall (violin), Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg (viola), Mark Drobinsky (cello)



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