BARGAIN OF THE MONTH
Martha Argerich - Solo and two-piano recordings
Full track & performer list at end of review
Performances in Lugano were recorded as part of the Progetto Martha Argerich, Lugano Festival under the artistic direction of Martha Argerich
EMI CLASSICS 0940442 [6 CDs: approx 420:00]
This boxed set is a veritable treasure trove, an embarrassment of riches, a golden hoard - you come up with the cliché and I’ll accept it. Released along with other sets to celebrate her 70th birthday it is a remarkable musical record of fabulous achievement packed with superlative performances that simply take the breath away.
The accompanying booklet contains an interesting article on Martha Argerich (b.1941) which, among other things, notes that ‘The unaffected poetic quality of (her) playing has not altered since she first came on the scene, as you will hear in the young pianist’s Chopin recital of 1965...’ Later, however, it says her style of playing has changed since then compared with ‘the radiant sunny freedom of the live recordings from the Martha Argerich Project in 21st-century Lugano’. I cannot comment on that statement. Since I am not a pianist I cannot dissect playing into all its component elements but simply report how her playing strikes me and on listening it is quite simply, superbly, unbelievably, amazing. The article speaks of her technique recalling the great names from the ‘golden age of keyboard masters’ Josef Hoffmann and Rosita Renard’, whereas I would go further and say I seriously felt I was in the presence of the composer himself when I listened to the first CD of the set, the solo disc that begins with her performance of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.3 and some mazurkas etc., recorded in 1965.
This was shortly after she stunned the musical world by winning the Chopin competition in Warsaw by taking three top prizes: first prize, the audience’s prize and the prize for the best interpretation of the mazurkas. The article is interesting in explaining how she was trained by her early teacher Vincenzo Scaramuzza to use her entire body as ‘the primary vehicle for the music’ which makes her unique among pianists, particularly since Scaramuzza never passed on his teaching methods to anyone else. The effect is electrifying sending shivers down my spine at every turn - in short I’ve never heard playing like it. As I say she sounds as if she inhabits the very being of the Chopin and it is impossible to imagine that he would have had any issues whatsoever with her interpretations - she seems that close to his intentions. This goes equally for her Kinderszenen; Schumann being another great love whose music she brings a magic touch to, and is surely the reason why she has always restricted herself to a relatively small number of composers much as people such as Lipatti and Glen Gould, among others, also did. Apparently she feels too exposed and lonely when performing alone so she gave up solo recitals, except on rare occasions, way back in the 1980s so we can thank our lucky stars that we have those solo recordings she did make. Incidentally it was amazing to hear the Chopin followed by the Schumann since the gap of 42 years is simply closed by both fabulous playing and brilliant recording.
The playing on every disc is superlative and though I couldn’t tell which pianist was which in the duos every colleague she plays with is a true artist - she’d be satisfied with nothing less. Argerich clearly finds the collaborative process a creative crucible in which a musical alchemy is achieved and this is never more apparent than when she plays Mozart’s Andante and Variations in G K501 with former husband Stephen Kovacevich on disc 2 in an electrifying performance that astounds one with the brilliance of the playing as well as the wit and humour of the music itself which is brought out in an abundantly clear way.
Disc 3 opens with a spellbinding account of the incidental music from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21, and with partner Cristina Marton the two pianists produce some white-hot playing that is nothing short of miraculous. This performance is followed by a transcription of Brahms’ Piano Quintet Op.34 for two pianos with Lilya Zilberstein and which makes a powerful argument for its existence as a transcription which is not surprising because though it is known as one this is in fact the original scoring that Brahms reworked into the quintet which is why certain passages of that work sound awkward to some critics. This disc finishes with the Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, another brilliant work by Brahms. The partner on this occasion is Polina Leschenko, a young Russian pianist with a prodigious talent and, once again, a worthy colleague for Martha Argerich and the playing here is wonderfully fluid and silky. Like the previous work this also started life as a two piano work only later becoming the orchestral version most of us know, incidentally thought to be the first set of variations written expressly for orchestra in the history of music. The work is powerful in both versions and, I think, equally valid in each.
Disc 4 is devoted to Rachmaninov, another composer Argerich has made her own and she shares the stage with Lilya Zilberstein on two of the three works - she appears no less than five times throughout the boxed set, more than anyone else. The disc begins with a superb rendition of Rachmaninov’s Suite No.1 Op.5 ending with an extremely powerful statement in the fourth movement Pâques with the repeated phrase mounting in intensity to a terrific climax. Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan-American pianist partners Martha Argerich in the Russian composer’s Suite No.2 Op.17 which is another beautifully executed piece in which the two pianists play with such staggering synchronicity it is hard to believe they are at separate pianos, communicating as if by magic, since they could not see each other. I didn’t know the two suites but have had so much joy in discovering them; they are ‘classic’ Rachmaninov works that are full of beauty and soul we expect from the man who was often called ‘the 6 foot tall scowl’, which may have explained his external persona, whereas his music really shows the inner being. Reading about Gabriela Montero is fascinating and I learned that at 18 months she could already pick out the Venezuelan national anthem on a toy piano; destiny so often seems to play a role in the forging of a musical prodigy and she certainly fills that bill and when musical sparks fly as they do in the second suite it is hardly surprising when the audience simply erupts at its end. The disc finishes with Rachmaninov’s Six Morceaux Op.11 with Lilya Zilberstein again sharing the piano with Argerich for some more pianistic prestidigitation that conjures up a delectable feast of wondrous playing.
I was particularly looking forward to hearing the fifth disc of the set since it has works by some favourite composers of mine starting with a fascinating prospect: a transcription of Prokofiev’s first symphony ‘Classical’. It is as impressive as it promises to be and it really works, with the two pianists sounding as full as the orchestra does, and with Yefim Bronfman as partner to Martha Argerich that comes as no surprise. For anyone who knows and loves the symphony they will be at turns both intrigued by the transcription (by Japanese pianist and composer Rikuya Terashima) and bowled over by the glorious playing. Next is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite Op.71a transcribed by Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, a long time piano partner of Argerich who was tragically killed in a motor accident at the early age of 40. Here the great Argentinean pianist is joined by the young Romanian pianist Mirabela Dina and Argerich shows that she is equally able to be hushed and gentle as she is a powerhouse of adrenalin fuelled intensity. Notes are whispered when necessary - just listen to tracks 7 and 9 to see what I mean. I was expecting great things when it came to the third work on the disc with Martha Argerich plus Lilya Zilberstein taking on my great love: Shostakovich, and I was not disappointed for one second since the two pianists tackle the piece with just the right amount of gravitas in the opening before the playful nature breaks out and the typical Shostakovich with hair well down shows his insight into the circus and music hall traditions that stood him in such good stead when earning money during his student days as a cinema pianist improvising during the showing of silent films. He wrote the piece for himself and son Maxim to play together, in 1953. Once again there are shrieks of delight from the audience at its climax and understandably so. With Alexander Mogilevsky the next item on this fabulous compilation set of Martha Argerich recordings is Ravel’s suite Ma Mère l’Oye which once again shows her capacity for gentle and delicate playing called for in so much of Ravel’s works. This work was written for and dedicated to Mimi and Jean Godebski (aged 6 and 7) and bears the subtitle ‘Five pieces for children’. The children in question must have been very good little pianists to follow all the changes in tempo and from quiet almost whispered passages to those demanding both power and fleetness of fingers. The two greats here produce wonderful sounds that help you rediscover the piece anew and place it properly where it deserves to be as a beautiful piano work worthy of being played by any pianist of note who cares to take it on. The next two tracks are interesting in that they are of the same work Lutosławski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini but with Martha Argerich being joined by two different pianists (Giorgia Tomassi and Mauricio Vallina) and recorded four years apart. I have to confess that I cannot tell the difference between the two versions; they are both superb and with only 8 seconds between them are almost mirror images. It is a great work, a tough challenge and really enjoyable, and if you want to hear some playing at breakneck speed there are several examples here.
Sharing a work for two pianos must require not just a collective vision of how a piece should be tackled but must also require other special abilities that are perhaps not immediately obvious. I should imagine it is quite taxing unless the piece is fairly short so when it comes to the final disc in the set it almost beggars belief that the first work is Messiaen’s mighty Visions de l’Amen that lasts an incredible 47+ minutes. One thing is for sure: Martha Argerich certainly chose her partner for this well since Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky is a composer as well as pianist and is one of the earliest composers of the minimalist school (he’s credited with having composed the very first minimalist work for orchestra). This would certainly enable him to get to grips with Messiaen’s special sound-world and, Messiaen is another favoured composer of Martha’s. It is a fantastic work, truly monumental in terms of a piano work requiring some hushed playing as well as some that would put any piano to the ultimate test of its construction. Messiaen needs listening to again and again if you don’t get it immediately but what rewards there are if you persevere! Messiaen had an uncanny way of taking you out of your own world and into a totally different one where space and time seem suspended and I find myself being incredibly moved by it so for the music lover who can appreciate his music and who is also a religious person the experience must be quite spellbinding. Messiaen’s encyclopaedic knowledge of birdsong - he considered himself to be as much an expert in that field as he did in music - comes into play as is often the case in his works and is always supremely interesting and beautiful. This recording was made in Abbey Road Studios in London in 1989 or I would have expected the applause to have lifted the roof off. After a work like that you need to be let down gently and that’s just what happens here as Messiaen’s mighty work is followed by Tres Romances argentinos Op.2 by Carlos Guastavino. These three little pieces are charming evocations of Latin American joie de vivre but seen through a prism of some of the great romantic pianist-composers of Europe such as Rachmaninov, Albeniz and Granados, Guastavino having eschewed the more contemporary paths chosen by other Argentinean composers like Ginastera but clearly influenced by the previous generation such as Alberto Williams and Juliàn Aguirre. With Mauricio Vallina as the other pianist Martha Argerich has a colleague who, coming from Cuba, shows a complete empathy with the feelings expressed in this music and the result is an extremely satisfying experience. To finish of this final disc we stay in Argerich’s home country with Astor Piazzolla that high priest of the Argentinean tango with his Three Tangos and sharing the music this time is Eduardo Hubert a fellow Argentine and who made these arrangements. I’ve read criticism of Martha Argerich for bothering with music that cannot be strictly described as ‘classical’ or ‘serious’ and that, if she must, then that it is a shame she plays Hubert’s arrangements which the writer did not deem worthy. All I can say is I enjoyed them and the playing is as expected, marvellous, and that the audience appreciated the performance as evidenced by the shouts. They could be described as ‘lollipops’ but is that a reason for not playing them? Someone like Martha Argerich may very well feel it important to show she can let her hair down - metaphorically, since her hair is still as long as it was when she first shot to prominence in the 1960s! - and I have sympathy with that since it shows a human side of her rarely glimpsed at otherwise as she is renowned for her shunning of publicity which may also help explain her reticence in playing solo; she wants us to concentrate on the music rather than on her.
This boxed set certainly shows all the music to its greatest advantage with every composer served magnificently by Martha Argerich and her chosen colleagues and, as I said in the beginning, I cannot imagine any composer from Mozart to Guastavino taking issue with her over interpretations. This is a set any piano music lover will treasure forever and no one will want to be without it once it’s theirs. I have only one criticism which concerns the accompanying booklet which, though it includes an interesting article about Martha Argerich herself, says little about the music and nothing at all about any of the fellow interpreters which seems to me to be insulting to some great pianists who deserve better.
I cannot imagine any composer from Mozart to Guastavino taking issue with her over interpretations. This is a set any piano music lover will treasure forever and no one will want to be without it once they have it.
Full contents listing
Solo and two-piano recordings, 1965-2009
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor Op.58
1. I. Allegro maestoso [8:45]; 2. II. Scherzo: Molto vivace [2:36]; 3. III. Largo [8:33]; 4. IV. Finale: Prest, non tanto [4:41]
5. Mazurka in A minor Op.59 No.1 [3:47]; 6. Mazurka in A flat Op.59 No.2 [2:49]; 7. Mazurka in F sharp minor Op.59 No.3 [2:58]; 8. Nocturne in F Op.15 No.1 [3:34]; 9. Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor Op.39 [7:01]; 10. Polonaise héroïque in A flat Op.53 [6:35]
Recorded 23, 24, 27 June, 1965 in No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, England
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
11. I. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen [1:43]; 12. II. Kuriose Geschichte [1:09]; 13. III. Hasche-Mann [0:26]; 14. IV. Bittendes Kind [0:56]; 15. V. Glückes genug [0:58]; 16. VI. Wichtige Begebenheit [0:50]; 17. VII. Träumerei [2:40]; 18. VIII. Am Kamin [0:46]; 19. IX. Ritter vom Steckenpferd [0:39]; 20. X. Fast zu Ernst [1:56]; 21. XI. Fürchtenmachen [1:41]; 22. XII. Kind im Einschlummern [2:05]; 23. XIII. Der Dichter spricht
Recorded in concert 24 June, 2007, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland. Total time:[70:35]
1. Andante and Variations Op.46 for two pianos [13:23] with Gabriela Montero:piano
Recorded in concert 21 June, 2007, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
2. Andante and Variations in G K501 for piano four hands [7:19] with Stephen Kovacevich: piano
Recorded in concert 21 June, 2008, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Piano Sonata in C K545 with a freely added arrangement for a second piano by Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) 3. I. Allegro [4:43]; 4. II. Andante [7:14]; 5. III. Rondo: Allegretto [2:14] with Piotr Anderszewski: piano. Recorded in concert 16 June, 2005, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
6. Fantasie für eine Orgelwalze [10:03] with Lilya Zilberstein: piano. Recorded in concert 18 June, 2007, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Reminiscences de Don Juan for two pianos S656
7. I. Grave [2:43]; 8. II. Duetto: Andantino [2:55]; 9. III. Allegretto [6:11]; 10. IV. Presto [3:40] with Mauricio Vallina: piano. Recorded in concert 29 June, 2009, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Concerto pathétique in E minor S258
11. Allegro energico- Grandioso - Quasi fantasia - Andante sostenuto - Allegro agitato assai - Andante, quasi Marcia funebre - Più mosso - Allegro trionfante [18:30] with Nelson Freire: piano. Recorded in concert as part of Music from Saratoga, July & August, 1998, Little Theatre, Saratoga Performing Arts Centre, USA. Total time:[79:41]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 - Incidental music
1. Overture [10:42]; 2. Scherzo [4:15] with Cristina Marton: piano. Recorded in concert 27 June, 2009, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonata in F minor Op.34b for two pianos (Transcription of Piano Quintet Op.34)
3. I. Allegro non troppo [14:11]; 4. II. Andante, un poco adagio [7:59]; 5. III. Scherzo: Allegro [6:57]; 6. IV. Finale: Poco sostenuto - Allegro non troppo - Presto non troppo [10:10] with Lilya Ziberstein: piano. Recorded in concert 24 June 2002, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn op.56b for two pianos
7. Chorale ‘St Anthony’: Andante [1:47]; 8. Variation I: Andante con moto [1:02]; 9. Variation II: Vivace [0:56]; 10. Variation III: Con moto [1:47]; 11. Variation IV: Andante [1:50]; 12. Variation V: Poco Presto [0:47]; 13. Variation VI: Vivace [1:10]; 14. Variation VII: Grazioso [2:53]; 15. Variation VIII: Poco Presto [0:47]; 16. Finale: Andante [4:10] with Polina Leschenko: piano. Recorded in concert 23 June, 2005, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland. Total time: [71:41]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Suite No.1 Op.5 for two pianos
1. I. Bacarolle [7:56]; 2. II. La nuit...l’Amour [5:55]; 3. III. Les Larmes [6:14]; 4. IV. Pâques [3:24] with Lilya Zilberstein: piano. Recorded in concert 11 June, 2008, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Suite No.2 Op.17 for two pianos
5. I. Introduction [3:44]; 6. II. Valse [5:31]; 7. III. Romance [6:58]; 8. IV. Tarantelle [5:53] with Gabriela Montero: piano. Recorded in concert 22 June, 2003, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Six Morceaux Op.11
9. I. Bacarolle [5:12]; 10. II. Scherzo [2:56]; 11. III. Thème russe [4:12]; 12. IV. Valse [3:56]; 13. V. Romance [3:28]; 14. VI. Slava [4:35] with Lilya Zilberstein: piano. Recorded in concert 22 June, 2003, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland. Total time: [70:09]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.1 in D Op.25 ‘Classical’, transcribed by Rikuya Terashima
1. I. Allegro [4:11]; 2. II. Larghetto [3:55]; 3. III. Gavotte: Non troppo allegro [1:31]; 4. IV. Fianle: Molto vivace [4:13] with Yefim Bronfman: piano. Recorded in concert 22 June, 2003, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker Suite Op.71a, transcribed by Nicolas Economou
5. I. Ouverture miniature [3:05]; II. Danses caractéristiques 6. a. Marche: Tempo di Marcia viva [2:22]; 7. b. Marche de la fée Dragée: Andante non troppo [2:24]; 8. c. Danse russe - Trépak: Tempo di Trepak, molto vivace [1:05]; 9. d. Danse arabe: Allegretto [3:16]; 10. e. Danse chinoise: Allegro moderato [0:59]; 11. f. Danse des mirlitons: Moderato assai [2:12]; 12. III. Valse des fleurs [6:53] with Mirabela Dina: piano. Recorded in concert 22 June, 2003, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
13. Concertino in A minor Op.94 for two pianos [9:46] with Lilya Zilberstein: piano
Adagio - Allegretto - Adagio - Allegro - Adagio - Allegretto. Recorded in concert 25 June, 2006, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère l’Oye - Suite
14. I. Pavane de la Belle au Bois dormant [1:22]; 15. II. Petit Poucet: Très modéré [2:46]; 16. III. Laideronette, impératrice des pagodes: Mouvement de marche [2:47]; 17. IV. Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bête: Mouvement de valse modéré [4:28]; 18. V. Le Jardin féerique: Lent et grave [2:57] with Alexander Mogilevsky:piano. Recorded in concert 15 June, 2007, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
19. Variations on a Theme by Paganini [5:27] with Giorgia Tomassi: piano. Allegro capriccioso - Meno mosso - Poco lento - Allegro molto - Più mosso - Ancora più mosso - Ancora più mosso. Recorded in concert 22 June, 2003, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
20. Variations on a Theme by Paganini [5:35] with Mauricio Vallina: piano. Recorded in concert 15 June, 2007, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland. Total time: [71:57]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Visions de l’Amen
1. I. Amen de la Création [4:32]; 2. II. Amen des étoiles, de la planète à l’anneau [5:09]; 3. III. Amen de l’Agonie de Jésus [9:04]; 4. IV. Amen de Désir [11:29]; 5. V. Amen des Anges, des Saints, du chant des oiseaux [7:48]; 6. VI. Amen du Jugement [2:52]; 7. VII. Amen de la Consommation [6:26] with Alexandre Rabinovitch:piano. Recorded 2-3 December, 1989 in No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, England
Carlos GUASTAVINO (1912-2000)
Tres Romances argentines Op.2
8. I. Las niñas de Santa Fe [5:16]; 9. II. Muchacho Jujeño [5:10]; 10. III. Baile en Cuyo [7:45] with Mauricio Vallina:piano. Recorded in concert 14 June, 2005, Auditotio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland
Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
Three Tangos, transcribed by Eduardo Hubert
11. Tres minutos con la realidad [3:06] 12. Obliviòn [4:40]; 13. Libertango [3:06] with Eduardo Hubert: piano. Recorded in concert 24 June, 2008, Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland. Total time: [77:06]