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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K448 (375a) [24:40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Variations on an Original Theme in A flat major D813 [18:32]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (Scenes of Pagan Russia in two parts, version for piano duet) [32:13]
Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim (pianos)
rec. live, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, 19 April 2014
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 3922 [75:27]

Martin Kettle’s booklet notes for this exceptional disc concentrate solely on the story of how this recording came about. He describes the seeming inevitability of these two stellar musicians performing together again after too long a gap in time. What can one write that hasn’t already been written about the music and what else can be said about the performers? The story he tells is of how the eight year old Marthita and the seven year old Danielito were regularly taken by their mothers to chamber concerts in the cultural oasis in Buenos Aires. The venue was the home of refugee Jewish businessman Ernesto Rosenthal. There they not only heard music but also played it themselves. Barenboim remembered how Argerich played the Chopin C sharp minor Étude from op.10 “with exactly the same fire and brilliance that she plays it with today”. Martha’s memories are of her mother expressing the wish that she could “be like Daniel” since his repertoire was already huge. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, when Barenboim was in charge of the Orchestre de Paris that he managed to have Martha play at some concerts he conducted and finally to give a duo performance with him. This recording is of the concert they gave in Berlin on Saturday, 19 April 2014 at Berlin’s Philharmonie, the first such concert for around thirty years. As can be imagined, the experience of seeing these two giants of the keyboard performing together again after all this time was palpably electric.

To read that Argerich had doubts about playing Mozart alongside Barenboim is a surprise since she seems capable of playing anything, and she had played this work before. Her reticence can be put down to her opinion of Barenboim’s Mozart playing about which she says “He is like a singer in every phrase, but for me Mozart is difficult and I was nervous about it.” In the event, as this recording proves, there was nothing to be concerned about. Argerich’s comment about Barenboim’s singing tone is in full evidence but Argerich matches him perfectly. In fact the bright, happy and effervescent nature of Mozart’s music is brought out as I’ve never heard it before. It seems clear that the very fact that these two childhood friends are making music together at this longed for occasion adds an essential ingredient that is utterly unique. There are few experiences in musical terms that are more satisfying than hearing performances of works you think you know in a way that makes you stop in your tracks. You submit to a new appraisal as it reveals aspects and nuances that you had been unaware of before. That is certainly what happened when I listened to this disc.

No other ‘great’ composer wrote more works for four hands than Schubert and all of them are pinnacles of the duet repertoire. In this case Schubert devised his own original theme and then subjected it to eight variations each characteristic of his brilliance in creating melody. This work had been part of that concert back in the 1980s and this time they performed it side by side on a single piano. The duo make it sound like a four handed pianist is at work with a single brain directing operations such is the coordinated precision of what we hear.

Back in October last year I reviewed a disc of two versions of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, for orchestra and for piano duet. I said I had never heard a more convincingly shattering version for orchestra than that one (Sinfonieorchester Basel with Dennis Russell Davies (conductor and piano) and Maki Namekawa (piano) SOB 06). I was very interested to hear the piano duet version but re-reading my review I see that I didn’t really say anything about the performance other than that they gave it their all. Apart from the fact that the husband and wife team take a little longer to play each of the two sections the differences in performance are not immediately obvious and certainly not glaring. Each is extremely enjoyable and the starkness of having this exceptional music reduced to two pianos serves to emphasise its impact. Whereas the orchestral score delivers sumptuous waves of sound the piano duet version keeps the listener concentrated on the shock value stripped of soft edges. There is obviously something special in the communication between Argerich and Barenboim which harks back to those childhood experiences. The electrifying nature of that long awaited collaborative concert adds an extra dimension. However, husband and wife Davies and Namekawa also have a special communicative edge that is in full operation in their version. It’s at times like this that I think of the job that reviewers have on the UK’s Radio 3 when on Saturdays someone compares many versions of a given work to find their recommendation. You’d think only comparing two would be simple; it isn’t. The fact that the Argerich/Barenboim version is live while the other is recorded does make the former an even more seat-of-the-pants experience but it is difficult to come down firmly on one side or the other though the repertoire itself makes the choice a clearer one. Personally I’m pleased to have them both as the orchestral version is one I couldn’t do without while having the Mozart and Schubert give immense pleasure.

Each piano duet version is a breathtaking experience and if I was pushed to come down in favour of one it would be the Argerich/Barenboim for the sheer energy that the live performance produces. It's something rarely equalled in a recording studio. The closing moments of the first part underline this; there is an absolutely tangibly manic nature to the playing here which sets the heart racing. As the second part opens in a comparatively quiet way the silence of the audience is remarkable and one can imagine that it was holding its collective breath; it must have been one of those totally unforgettable occasions and I am very jealous of Martin Kettle who was there to witness it and who no doubt joined in the eruption of shouts and tumultuous applause that greeted its end.

Steve Arloff