Martha Argerich at the Verbier Festival
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 (1793-1795) [29:24]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in D minor, K.141 (?1749) [3:35]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35* (1933) [23:07]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in C (1855) [29:20]
Martha Argerich (piano)
David Guerrier (trumpet)*
Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra/Gábor Takács-Nagy
rec. live, Verbier Festival, Switzerland, 22 July 2010 (Beethoven; Scarlatti), 17 July 2010 (Shostakovich; Bizet)
Directors: Philippe Béziat (Beethoven; Scarlatti) Anaďs Spiro (Shostakovich; Bizet)
Picture format: 16:9/1080i Full HD
Sound: PCM stereo only
Region: 0 (worldwide)

In its short life the Verbier Festival – founded in 1994 – has become one of the major events in the musical calendar. The Argentine pianist Martha Argerich has been around a lot longer – she turned 69 a month before this concert was recorded – and has made Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Third her signature pieces; she’s recorded both works several times, to much acclaim. That said, I’ve seen her Salzburg performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto from two years earlier – review – and was disappointed by the waywardness of it all. She has borne up under a heroic battle against cancer, advancing years and a growing number of cancelled concerts – she has just pulled out of the 2011 BBC Proms. All this might suggest her career is all but over.

But goodness, she certainly has a following, as the enthusiastic applause confirms. In the Beethoven she sits patiently waiting for the long orchestral introduction to pass, occasionally miming the beat as she does. It’s a strangely endearing quirk which, for all its eccentricity, doesn’t detract from what proves to be remarkably fluent, youthful-sounding Allegro. More important, there’s no sign of decreased dexterity in the trills and dances of this movement, which strikes a good balance between Classical delicacy and Romantic ardour. The orchestra takes its cue from conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy, whose hyperactive manner appears to galvanise them at every turn.

The high-definition picture is very sharp, the sound – in PCM stereo only – rather dry and close. Still, there’s plenty of detail and weight, the piano being quite well caught. Camera-work is generally discreet, although the constant close-ups add a degree of claustrophobia to what appears to be a fairly confined performance area. It all sounds a little too overbearing in the Adagio, which rather lacks poetry. Those used to a lighter HIP sound will find this movement hard going; even Argerich seems less spontaneous here. Takács-Nagy’s tempi and phrasing are much too lumpen for my liking.

Fortunately everyone perks up in the Rondo. Argerich dashes off those delectable dance tunes with obvious delight. She really does look like a wacky wiccan at times, and there’s no denying she makes magic in the outer movements of this concerto. Her audience responds with enthusiasm. I say ‘her’ audience as these festival appearances are rather like intimate soirées, the master – or mistress – surrounded by their adoring disciples. If that sounds churlish, it isn’t meant to; this may be an uneven performance but it’s a perfectly serviceable one. As for the high-def sound, it picks up all sorts of extraneous noises, including occasional humming and unwelcome resonance from the Steinway.

The encore, Scarlatti’s K.141, begins before the hall has quietened down; but what unfolds is just astonishing. It’s a seemingly effortless, effervescent reading, the piece dispatched with such aplomb. Most remarkable is the crystalline quality of Argerich’s playing, sharply characterised but without a trace of hardness. These are qualities one might look for in the cheeky Allegretto of the Shostakovich concerto, which is given a darker cast than usual. I miss the subversive wit, that mischievous twinkle in the eye, that others find in this music. And good as it is, David Guerrier’s trumpet playing is also a tad sober for my taste.

And it just gets worse; Takács-Nagy’s tempi for the Lento are unpardonably sluggish, the orchestra coagulating around Argerich’s ponderous playing. Any attempt to inject extra gravitas here – if that’s the intention – is fundamentally misguided, as this lifeless reading so amply demonstrates. Bizarre is the only word for it and the Moderato-Allegro is even less inspired. If you’re easily distracted by podium prancers the conductor’s almost continuous gurning will surely test your patience. Also, there’s an audible overhang from the piano at one point which, in a less muddied performance, would be even more obvious. All very messy, I’m afraid.

Given that peculiar experience I didn’t hold out much hope for the ‘bonus’ item, a performance of Bizet’s Symphony in C. The Allegro vivo is pleasing enough, although Takács-Nagy does make the piece sound more like Beethoven than Bizet. Rhythms are reasonably supple throughout and tempi are well judged, but there’s a Schweizerdeutsch seriousness to this performance, which lacks the Gallic charm one associates with Ansermet for instance. Again, a perfectly serviceable account of a well-known work, but not very memorable.

That pretty much sums up this disc. And despite good visuals the closely miked PCM sound falls well short of what we’ve come to expect from the best Blu-Rays.

Strictly for Argerich fans, I’m afraid.

Dan Morgan

Strictly for Argerich fans, I’m afraid.