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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 [27:14]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 [33:27]
Martha Argerich (piano)
Mito Chamber Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. live, Art Tower Mito, Mito City, Ibaraki, Japan, 2017
DECCA CLASSICS 4832566 [60:41]

The Ozawa/Argerich collaboration is a class act. It dates back to 40 years ago in October 1979 when the two ‘star performers’ first appeared together. This was the pianist’s sensational Boston debut in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Although over the intervening years the two have performed together, becoming close friends along the way, this latest release from Decca Classics is their first official recording. The Mito Chamber Orchestra was established in 1990 and the players are the some of the finest and best, hand-picked from far and wide. I was amazed, seeing a centrefold photo of them in the booklet, how small and intimate a group they look. You wouldn’t guess listening to the wonderful sound they produce. 

Both works are what I would describe as upbeat and genial. In the Symphony Ozawa chooses comfortable tempi but manages to maintain the energy in the outer movements. The second movement is as fine as any performance I’ve ever heard. In some readings the ‘con moto’ element is sadly missing, but not so here. There’s a sprightly charm, and at no time does the music sag. The Menuetto is ebullient and rhythmically bracing. Optimistic and invigorating positivity inform the finale. The Mito players are very responsive to Ozawa’s inspirational direction.

The Piano Concerto is no less energized and life enhancing. Once again, the tempi that Ozawa sets are nicely paced. The first movement is tautly rhythmical with a true sense of heroic grandeur. At 76, Argerich’s technique still retains its astonishing brilliance. Dazzling fingerwork, sensitive pedalling and superb dynamic control are the order of the day. In the slow movement both pianist and players luxuriate in the beguiling lyricism of the music. Argerich’s tone is ravishing, and her phrasing ardent and tender. The thrilling finale sparkles with verve and vigour, with the audience registering their approval with enthusiastic applause and thunderous ‘bravos’ at the end.

Much of the success of these performances resides in the fact that they were taped live in January and May 2017. Both artists seem to respond well to the atmosphere and electricity of the live event. The performances are very fresh and evolve spontaneously. Added to that, the engineers have worked wonders with the sound, which is well-balanced, airy and detailed. In the concerto, the piano sits perfectly in the overall sound picture. I hope this will be the start of further collaborations - perhaps Argerich may work her way through the five piano concertos, each paired with one of the composer's symphonies. I’m certainly keeping my fingers crossed.

Stephen Greenbank


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