This 2010 Lugano box emerges during Martha Argerich’s 70th birthday year. She participates in a goodly proportion of the music, and boy is she good! Her friends - and yes, relatives - are more or less the same as appeared on the previous collections from the festival. Each and every player shows the highest level of technique and musicality. As usual, we get neither Schubert nor Haydn, still no woodwind – it’s mostly piano with strings or multi-piano music.
2010 was the bicentenary of both Schumann and Chopin, and each of the birthday boys gets two pieces of cake. The album starts with a very emotional reading of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.1. The tempi are alive and breathing, the piano prankish, though the violin tone is a bit acid. The performers shape the music, not letting it split into a mosaic. This is a very persuasive account. You can feel that Chopin’s Rondo is an early piece, although it’s already unmistakable Chopin. The music is not especially memorable, but is pleasant and worth hearing. The mood is sunny, with silver bells and summer breezes – much like his Second Piano Concerto. The pianists play with excellent forward momentum, precision and élan. All is light and shiny.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann, op. 23 is not a frequent guest on stage or on disc. Maybe the reason is its massive, meaty character, which is almost unchanging over the course of its 16 minutes. The music has surprisingly little of the macabre connotations that could follow from its theme’s story. This theme was allegedly dictated to the composer in his sleep, by the ghosts of Schubert and/or Mendelssohn (the stories vary). This is a solid piece of mahogany and gold, and if it sounds heavy-handed, I would blame Brahms. Nicolas Angelich and Lily Maisky strive to make it as airy and relaxed as possible, without losing grip on the structure. Maybe a softer piano could help them – its ringing sound is tiring. This is probably the only work in the box that I’d skip on repeated listenings.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 is the highlight of the set. Argerich plays in her true manner – with fire and brilliance, yet also with plenty of soul. The orchestral introduction is not heavy, but airy and almost wistful. The woodwinds are delicate. There is no rush, and the piano sings. All dense places are clearly articulated. The entire first movement radiates excitement. The piano thunderstorm right before the orchestral recapitulation is breathtaking. The second theme in the recapitulation is sunny and wise and the coda is a whirlwind. The slow movement looks a bit overheated. This reading is dramatic, rather than breathing, more Allegretto than Larghetto. It becomes almost Lisztian. Still, it is a beautiful picture, even though the colors are more saturated than usual. The piano sound is soft and sensitive. The finale is light and happy, with good forward momentum. The quicksilver runs of the piano are frolicsome. The orchestra is quick and bouncy. The musical line never hangs loose: this long and not very diverse movement can sometimes become tiresome – not here!
Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro is a beautiful piece which you might know from recordings with other instruments. Capuçon’s cello has a rich and deep voice. The Adagio is warm and sensual. There is much sincere love – in the notes and in the performance. In Allegro we see Schumann as the ecstatic Florestan. The tempo marking means “fast and fiery”, and that’s what we get!
In a topnotch transcription by the composer himself, Les Préludes emerges as almost another piano sonata by Liszt. The similarity to some of his other piano works is apparent. The introduction is vast and brooding, before the slow waves of the main “body” start to roll. It really feels like a sequence of preludes, promises to something that will come. The tempestuous passages are not over-dramatized, and stay as an organic part of the whole. This section is followed by mystic heat flashes, precursors of Scriabin. The ending is exultant. I expected that this long and mostly uniform piece would lose a lot without the orchestral colors but the pianists make it a thrilling listen throughout.
Korngold’s Quintet is not a must-hear. It is lush Viennoiserie. The themes are weak, and the fabric is too violin-oriented. The high strings are at times dry and thin, and seem to be separate from the piano. The first movement is pretentious and sounds very Richard Strauss. There are beautiful moments, but nothing grabbed me seriously. The operatic Adagio seems too overheated to impress. Towards its end, the high-pitched ecstasy starts to annoy. The finale is somewhat hectic, and is reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Dvorák. Overall, I got the impression of a falsetto pretending to be a soprano.
Argerich already recorded Bartók’s unique Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with her ex-husband Stephen Kovacevich. They now revisit it with the same success. The mysterious introduction grows into a rowdy, reckless Allegro. This is fascinating music – as if the bright, colorful patterns of fireworks were drawn over the deep background of the dark skies. The barbaric black drive that starts mid-way through the first movement is not hurried, and yet has the feeling of inevitability. Slower places are atmospheric and creepy. There is excellent suspense in the slow movement, and the finale is a choleric moto perpetuo, optimistic yet cautious. Bartók creates here new sonorities, nothing is predictable or standard. The use of percussion is inventive and diverse. The only drawback is that the recording – especially of the percussion – is distant. Were it closer, the effect would be even greater. As it is, the sense of involvement is all but lost.
In each Lugano box, I always meet a work that I wish that I had known always. Here it’s the Piano Quintet of Enrique Granados. If you associate the name of this composer only with his Spanish Dances, you’ll be surprised when you hear this work. On a blind listening, I would probably attribute it to Dvorák! The composer creates a good balance of the piano with the strings, and the voices blend well. The opening Allegro is typical late Romantic music: agitated, expressive, desperate. The slow movement is a gem. A sad, touching melody unfolds in the cool air. It is a hushed, transparent lullaby. I feel a resemblance with the slow movement of Dvorák’s Piano Quintet: the same commingling of intimate melancholy, coolness and warmth. The last movement resembles the “Gypsy” finales of Brahms. The refrain is boisterous and wild. The inner episodes are more lyrical, with Romantic yearning. The ensemble plays with flair and a lot of healthy, infectious enthusiasm. The recording is very spacious, the strings are vibrant and the cello is captured very well.
I liked the three-piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite by Carlo Maria Griguoli. It is resourceful and faithful to the spirit of the original. The Introduction is dark and sinister. The low growling pianos enthrall. The arrangement is not as dense as one might anticipate from three pianos: it is surprisingly spacious. The Firebird’s Dance is glittering gold. The arrangement requires excellent coordination of the three pianists, and they really deliver the fireworks. The Dance of the Princesses is gentle, hushed and very pianistic. Kaschei’s Dance is dark and wild. The arrangement is colorful, with black torrents of music, just as in the orchestral version. Lullaby is mysterious and suspenseful. The performers excellently do the gradual brightening of the finale to the jubilant ending. If you love the original Firebird, you’ll love this arrangement, especially in such a well-balanced and exciting performance. I did.
A good performance of Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess is rough and sandy. It must have sweat on it, not makeup. When it’s pristine, it’s phony. I feel this honest rawness in the performance of Percy Grainger’s Porgy and Bess Fantasy by Gabriela Montero and Alexander Gurning. This musical journey includes almost all the favorite numbers from the opera, though their order was changed in accordance with Grainger’s musical vision. There is certainly some tinge of an operatic paraphrase – it is one, isn’t it? But the most striking resemblance is to Rhapsody in Blue – including the overall mood, which is for the most part very upbeat. The pianists play with panache and bring in some tango flavor. The piano sound is a bit heavy.
Almost every Lugano box contains a deep, thought-provoking XX century work. Here it is the Piano Quintet by Alfred Schnittke. It is certainly very different from the rest of the program. Mostly atonal, with quartertones, it nevertheless speaks to everyone. The work was created in memory of the composer’s mother, right after she died. It is stylistically unified. Much of the music is sparse and bleak. After the desolation and loneliness of the first movement, the second brings eerie shadows of a waltz. There is some dead beauty in these ghostly veils. The third movement begins in a cloud of static buzz, like a constant background of grief which is behind every thought. It becomes unbearable, and then gives way to a relentless bell-like toll of the piano. In the fourth movement, disjointed sounds hang in the air. There is no relief from the pain, no solution for it. The last movement is a short, crystal-clear passacaglia. Its motif is like an old music-box that suddenly started playing in an empty room. This sound awakens memories, and reminiscences of other movements whirl in the air. In the end the passacaglia motif remains alone and fades into silence. This music makes a deep impact – just like the late works of Shostakovich, especially his Viola Sonata. The playing is sincere and devoted. The musicians do not try to dig out humor where there is none. The recording is atmospheric and clear.
On her 70th birthday, Martha Argerich made a present to all of us. This very rewarding collection contains wonderful music in excellent interpretations.
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 [16:21]
Renaud Capuçon (violin), Martha Argerich (piano)
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Rondo for Two Pianos in C major, op. 73 [8:58]
Lilya Zilberstein, Sergei Edelmann (piano)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Schumann, op. 23 [16:33]
Nicolas Angelich, Lily Maisky (piano)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, op. 11 [38:21]
Martha Argerich (piano), Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Jacek Kaspszyk
Adagio and Allegro, op. 70 [8:44]
Gautier Capuçon (cello), Martha Argerich (piano)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes S97/S637/R359 (version for two pianos by the composer) [15:26]
Martha Argerich, Daniel Rivera (piano)
Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Quintet in E major, op. 15 [29:07]
Alexander Mogilevsky (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin), Lucia Hall (violin), Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg (viola), Mark Drobinsky (cello)
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Sz.110 (1937) [27:01]
Martha Argerich, Stephen Kovacevich (piano), Louis Sauvaître, Danilo Grassi (percussion)
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 49 [14:27]
Gabriela Montero (piano), Alissa Margulis (violin), Geza Hosszu-Legocky (violin), Lyda Chen (viola), Natalia Margulis (cello)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird Suite (three-piano version by Carlo Maria Griguoli) [17:35]
Giorgia Tomassi, Carlo Maria Griguoli, Alessandro Stella (piano)
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1971)
Fantasy for two pianos on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess [16:20]
Gabriela Montero, Alexander Gurning (piano)
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Quintet, Op.108 [30:07]
Lilya Zilberstein (piano), Dora Schwarzberg, Lucia Hall (violin), Lida Chen (viola), Jorge Bosso (cello)