Martha Argerich: The Collection 3 – Chamber Ensembles
Martha Argerich (piano)
with Nicolas Economou, Nelson Freire, Mikhail Pletnev (pianos),
Gidon Kremer (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Mischa Maisky (cello),
Peter Sadlo and Edgar Guggeis (percussion)
Full track listing at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8847 [6 CDs: 369:02]
Volume One contained Martha Argerich’s solo
recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. Volume Two is dedicated to
the concertos. Volume Three contains her chamber recordings in
chronological order. Like the first two, the present set is a
treasure chest of precious gems. Argerich tells us that latterly
she prefers “company on the platform” and that in this way she
does not feel the loneliness of the soloist. This collection is
evidence of exactly how good she feels in the company of her close
friends. Out of six discs, four are dedicated to her beloved medium
– the piano duet - while the remaining two offer the more “traditional”
chamber music with strings.
It is better to start with the Economou disc (Disc One), if only because it won’t seem as good after you have heard the others. The Nutcracker arrangement is based on the suite that Tchaikovsky himself extracted as his Op.71a. The ballet is a multifaceted work, and one can produce quite different moods by extracting different chunks, as Mravinsky showed in his highly dramatic suite. Tchaikovsky’s suite is in effect a box of all the sweets and candies from the complete ballet. Economou’s arrangement makes it even more glittering and sugary, if such a thing is possible. The Arab Dance is supposed to represent coffee, if I remember correctly – but this coffee has a dizzying caffeine quotient! And this high-caffeine impression holds for the rest of the pieces: everything is bursting with energy. The recording clearly favors the higher register, which leads to an even greater “glitter factor”. The resulting view is a bit one-sided, pleasant as a cake with whipped cream, but without any serious depth. Then again, you don’t look for depth everywhere. And there is so much light and lightness here. This is unusual for two-piano music, which so often can sound dense and heavy.
The same dry and shallow recording mars the Symphonic Dances. Even without it, some decisions taken by the pianists are questionable. I definitely prefer the later recording with Freire (on Disc 6). There is little menace in the Part I march, and the middle section sags. Part II has all its details clearly exposed, instead of hiding them in the blue mists. There are strange pauses and the pace is disrupted, with tempo slowing down frequently. The music takes some time to achieve real flight - its flutter may be mesmerizing but the momentum is almost absent. The climax is not sufficiently supported by the bass. Part III is the most successful. The fast episodes are vigorous and athletic, but the calm ones again lose all connection with forward movement. The climax is very impressive. Overall, the performance creates the impression that the Dances are overlong and poorly constructed, which they definitely are not.
Peter Sadlo has added a percussion ‘overcoat’ to the two-piano version of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye and Rapsodie Espagnole on Disc Two. The surgeon’s touch was gentle, and the embellishments are non-intrusive, especially in the former. In the Pavane, only a few accents spotlight the piano fabric. In Petit Poucet, the bird-calls are boosted, and I find this not quite natural. Laideronnette is clad in little Chinese bells, a very stylish robe. The percussion is silent during the waltzing Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, but then returns to illuminate the final piece, adding silver radiance to its quiet steps and exploding in fireworks in the féerique ending. The pianists create intimate and expressive pictures, played with youthful freedom. This is a very memorable rendering.
The same careful after-touch was applied to the Rapsodie espagnole. In Prélude à la nuit the picture is darkened by subdued, remote thunder-rolls. Malagueña gets a full dose of Spanishry, as in Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. In Habanera, the gentle swaying of the music is intensified by gentle percussion strokes. Finally, the Feria gets a completely new dimension. Here the percussion layer is thick, and the pianists navigate through it like a pair of dancers in a crowd. The culmination is ecstatic. The entire suite is grand and sensual. Even without the percussion the pianists paint an unforgettable picture. The music breathes freely, the rhythms are alive, and the character is Spanish to the core.
In Bartók’s Sonata the percussion is an equal partner. The first movement has Bartók’s signature rhythmic savagery and dark chants. It is painted in bold strokes, and its progress is captivating. The performers go wild and violent. The second movement is a creepy mystery, with cold metallic explosions. The final Allegro is happy, unhinged and very Hungarian. The entire Sonata is coherent and colorful, and the performance is powerful and inspired. The recording quality is excellent throughout the disc; the acoustics are deep and warm.
Disc Three has its strong and weak aspects. This was a live recording, though the audience is very quiet. The sound quality is not ideal: I can’t call it muddy, but it is not clear either, somewhat unbalanced and with the feeling that some overtones were cut off. The three musicians are long-time friends, but they had not played together a lot before this event. And when three such big musical personalities meet, it’s sometimes a bit of a clash instead of a selfless blending. Despite all this, I loved this record.
Gidon Kremer, a Shostakovich interpreter par excellence, sets the tone in the Trio No.2. His characteristic coldness finds a perfect home in this music. Maisky’s cello is less prominent – one of the balance characteristics of this recording. Argerich is the driving force. There is slight de-synchronization in a couple of places but I cannot deny the emotional impact of the performance. The rough, occasionally hoarse string voices are very humane and personal: this is a life story told by an old friend in the kitchen, not sung by an opera diva. Maybe there is more shouting here than in some other recordings, but Shostakovich here was venting his despair and his anger. Shy and reticent in life, he could be manic in music, and this performance is manic. I definitely agree that there are recordings that win on points - such as the incomparable Beaux Arts - but let this not stop you from listening to this one. It will knead your heart like dough, though you’ll mostly see the tragedy from the outside rather than the inside.
The Tchaikovsky Trio in A minor also receives a fiery performance. The big Romantic gestures of Pezzo elegiaco are impatient and turbulent. This makes the feeling of the loss all the heavier when the main theme returns in the middle of the movement. If you know Argerich’s volcanic interpretations, be assured that here she is joined by two soul mates; even icy Kremer is white-hot. The long second movement, Tema con variazioni, is closer to the Rococo Variations than anything else. Some variations are taken at a speed faster than was comfortable for the ensemble and this does result in some fleeting moments of uncertainty. As if trying to cover this, there is some bombastic playing afterwards. So, again, I am sure there must be performances that plunge deeper into the soul of this music, but there can hardly be a more electrifying one. This might not be exactly the goal of the composer, so I wouldn’t recommend it as your only version. I liked their grave conclusion: it has a feeling of being unpolished, not calculated, a rough sincerity. It is said that the piano part of the Trio is the most demanding piano score Tchaikovsky ever wrote, but Argerich flies through it like a wide-winged eagle. And even if she crashes some furniture on the way, she does it with aquiline poise!
There is a humorous encore. Peter Kiesewetter’s Tango pathétique takes some of Tchaikovsky’s big tunes and with a wave of a magic wand views them through the strains of the tango. It is rather an elegant joke.
None of the drawbacks of Disc Three persist in Disc Four: the recording quality is excellent, and the ensemble is precise. All the advantages are intact: the virtuosity, the enthusiasm, and the shining mastery. If only the soloists had recorded something more substantial as a fill-up! The First Piano Quartet by Brahms has seen some great recordings already - look for any one with Rubinstein or Richter, for example - but I doubt that there has been a more passionate one. The partners hear each other and act as one. Argerich does not eclipse the strings, and so we get a consolidated quartet, not a small army of strings in a desperate war against the big bad piano as happens sometimes.
The mighty, turbulent flow of the Allegro is clear-lined and avoids the heaviness which plagues some interpretations. The lines are dark but airy at the same time. The climaxes come naturally, and the overall structure has classical clarity. Brahms’ uncomfortable tension is pushed almost to its limits. The Intermezzo is feverish. The vibrant voices of the lower strings reflect its nervous pulse. The Trio is like a short visit by a cheerful friend. The slow movement has light steps, and its ebullient outbursts try to prepare us for the closing Rondo alla zingarese. But can anything really prepare for this daredevilry, this wild swirling dance, this flaming abandon? The entire Universe seems to be in shift and in motion. This is one of the most colorful and memorable single movements in the entirety of classical music. In the hands of these performers it is the musical equivalent of an adrenaline injection. The entire recording can serve as ideal material to win converts to Brahms.
Schumann’s Fantasiestücke are more modest in scale. They have the colors and the ambition of other Schumann’s chamber works, but here the pieces of the mosaic do not really come together to form something bigger than the sum of its parts. The performers, however, are very enthusiastic about this composition, and so each piece of the mosaic shines brightly. I especially liked the caring and tense romance of the third movement – a portrait of Schumann in love. The finale was not one of composer’s most inspired creations, but this is probably the best rendition I’ve heard: fresh, dynamic and good-humored.
The remaining two discs are so good, I can’t decide which one I like more. No – which one I love more. On Disc Five, Argerich plays with Mikhail Pletnev, and the disc starts with Pletnev’s 35-minute two-piano suite from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. I always thought that composer’s own piano transcriptions from this ballet were plain and dry, and fail to reach the depths of the orchestral version. They give an impression of what is going on, but do not approach the level of musical emotion evoked by the full score. The transcriptions by Pletnev are magical. He succeeded in recreating the empurpled velvet of the musical core, its dark depths and its pearly glow. The suite unfurls as one extravagant dream. The introduction is wistful; Winter is full of glittering icicles; the angular pas of the Gavotte are very stylish. But it is not all veils and mists. The Quarrel is razor-sharp; Spring is unexpectedly jazzy; the Gavotte has the drive of Prokofiev’s Toccata, while its middle episode is noble. And the two waltzes are to die for. Cinderella’s Waltz is gentle and sincere. Its sad fatalism is brutally interrupted by the loud “choruses” of the guests. The tender ending is full of soft hope, like a smile through tears. The final waltz is dark and powerful, and the clock scene scary. The two pianists achieve wonders. With all these frequent tempo changes, their synchronization is amazing, and the overall feeling of spontaneity is exceptional. The phrases are shaped, the effects are inventive, and the recording quality matches the performance level. The listening leaves a wonderful ‘aftertaste’.
If you wanted to compare Peter Sadlo’s arrangement of Ma Mère l’Oye with the original four-hand version, you have a very fine one done by Argerich and Pletnev. The traversal of Petit Poucet and Laideronnette is quite brisk, and although some charm is missing, the level of interest and involvement is high. The pianists show their perfect command of the tonal palette. Beauty and the Beast is especially spacious, and the finale has cosmic solemnity.
Finally, on Disc Six Argerich reunites with her old friend Nelson Freire. The two-piano (or four-hand) playing does not get any better than this. Even though they have already recorded most of this music (except for the Schubert), these are the versions to have. The accord between the two musicians is phenomenal. They seem to read each other’s minds. The recording quality is excellent. The piano sound is deep and beautiful, with absolute presence and warmth. This is a live recording from the Salzburg Festival. As in the best live events, everything seems to be just right.
The Haydn Variations by Brahms will not make you miss the orchestral colors. It is a feast of bell-ringing sonorities. The rhythmic interplay is lively, and the sense of excitement is vivid. At the same time, the playing is careful and gentle, with beautiful tonal shading. The pianists give each variation a different character. This music can be stately, but here it is suddenly playful, even humorous. Yes, the humor of Brahms can be heavy sometimes, but here it comes out friendly and sincere, very warm. The finale is overwhelming: the tightly compressed spring is uncoiled.
Next come Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances again: larger-than-life, expressing larger-than-life emotions. No more strange breaks and pauses: from the first measure, the music takes an eagle’s flight. It soars high and breathes free. There are no hard edges, the touch is elastic, and the steely muscles are covered in silk. The slow episode inside the first movement is crystal white, and the recapitulation has the drive of a locomotive. The second movement is a hazy waltz, and its veiled menace is thrilling. The last movement is a midnight terror, a witches’ Sabbath, a Niagara of black notes. Out of all the two-piano versions I heard, this one reflects the ideal balance between Beauty and of the Beast.
The performance of Schubert’s Rondo in A major is magical: so flexible, so gentle. It really opened my eyes to this piece; I never imagined it to be so enchanting. The pianists manage completely to avoid all squareness. The character is evenly calm and tender, without the dramatic outbursts of late Schubert. It is long, but I wish it were longer: it is such a sweet dream.
The recital ends with a roof-blowing rendition of Ravel’s La Valse. It was intended as a ballet, but Diaghilev deemed the music “un-theatrical”. This performance shows that no dancers are needed: the music itself dances as no dancer ever coul. It glitters and spins, an aristocratic whirlwind with dark undercurrents that lead to tragedy. It dances itself into ecstatic oblivion. The ending is a horrible shock: Why? What did I do? What went wrong? It’s waltzing on ice, when the ice floes suddenly start turning over, and everything drowns.
Overall, this six-disc collection is a thrill and a delight. It shows a snapshot of an outstanding musical personality, granting to us memorable performances of some of the best music ever written. Some trifling allowance must be made for recording quality not being on the same high level throughout, some ensembles may be slightly and momentarily out of coordination and you may take issue with some of the artistic decisions. Even so this is all so minor, compared to the excitement and the high artistry on offer. Not all these recordings are live, but they are all alive. This is a collection to love.
Full track listing
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1940) [32:41]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker, Op.71a – Suite from the ballet Op.71 (arr. for 2 pianos by N.Economou) (1892) [20:49]
Martha Argerich, Nicolas Economou (pianos)
rec. March 1983, Herkules-Saal, Munich [53:40]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion Sz.110 (1937) [25:51]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère l’Oye (arr. for 2 pianos and percussion by P.Sadlo) (1908-10) [15:33]
Rapsodie espagnole (arr. for 2 pianos and percussion by P.Sadlo) (1907) [13:50]
Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire (pianos), Peter Sadlo, Edgar Guggeis (percussion)
rec. Feb. 1993, Concertgebouw, Nijmegen [55:32]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello No.2 in E minor, Op.67 (1944) [29:03]
Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello in A minor, In memory of a great artist, Op.50 (1882) [47:33]
Peter KIESEWETTER (b.1945)
Tango pathétique [2:20]
Martha Argerich (piano), Gidon Kremer (violin), Mischa Maisky (cello)
rec. live, May 1998, Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo [79:21]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (1861) [39:56]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke, Op.88 (1842) [18:19]
Martha Argerich (piano), Gidon Kremer (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola – Brahms), Mischa Maisky (cello)
rec. Feb. 2002, Teldex Studio, Berlin [58:18]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cinderella – Suite from the ballet Op.87 (1940-44) (arr. for 2 pianos by M.Pletnev) [35:38]
Ma Mère l’Oye (1908-10) [14:02]
Martha Argerich, Mikhail Pletnev (pianos)
rec. Aug.2003, Théâtre de Vevey, Suisse [49:47]
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56b (1873) [17:09]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1940) [31:56]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo in A major, D.951 “Grand Rondeau” (1828) [11:09]
La Valse (1919-20) [12:09]
Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire (pianos)
rec. live, Aug.2009, Salzburg Festival [72:24]