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Martha Argerich – The Successful Beginning
rec. 1957-61
PROFIL PH18050 [4 CDs: 245:32]

As readers likely know, Martha Argerich (b. 1941) has a massive following, arguably as big and devoted as that of any other pianist, current or past. With one exception (noted later on), the performances on this four-disc set took place in the period 1957-61, when Argerich was in her late teens and possibly just twenty years old. She won the Busoni and Geneva Competitions in 1957 and would go on to capture first prize at the 1965 Chopin Competition, which catapulted her to international fame. Thus, these recordings from Profil (Edition Günter Hänssler) showcase Argerich the up-and-coming talent, not yet recognized as the supremely gifted artist the world knows today.

Argerich recorded the Ravel G major Concerto at least seven times, and this version was her first effort, dating from 1960, when she was eighteen (or nineteen, if it was recorded on or after June 5). It shows the young virtuoso as a pianist who favored very fast tempos, with even the second movement, which is marked Adagio assai, moving ahead with an almost moderate gait. (Ironically, that movement is mislabeled in Profil’s album booklet as Allegro assai!) Of the four versions I have of hers, this is the fastest: three that followed (1967 on DG, 1988 on DG and 2009 on a Euroarts DVD) feature tempos becoming progressively less driven, the lyricism generally more poetic, and the playing arguably showing more feeling. Still, this first effort shows her in fine form, making a good case for her brisker treatment. The sound reproduction is decent but the orchestral playing hardly exceptional. Argerich fans will probably like this more than Ravel admirers.

The situation is similar with her 1960 account of Gaspard de la nuit: every movement is faster than her excellent and hardly leisurely 1974 DG recording, the whole performance almost four minutes quicker. In an Orwellian world she might be charged with a tempo crime. That said, don’t write this early rendition off. If her later Gaspard is the better of the two versions, then one can at least say that this 1960 effort features a Scarbo (third movement), known for its exceeding difficulties, that is not only technically breathtaking but very well conceived, making this performance alone worth the price of purchase. The Sonatine and Jeux D’eau are both quite nicely played here, but like Gaspard, feature dated though adequate sound reproduction.

Argerich had a very successful, if brief artistic relationship with violinist Ruggiero Ricci. Performances from their 1961 concerts in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, have been highly acclaimed and released on previous recordings, as is also the case with other material on the discs here. The Bartok Sonatina is splendidly played and the Sarasate Introduction and Tarantella is simply stunning. But, fine as Argerich is, it is Ricci whose playing is absolutely spectacular in the Sarasate. The Beethoven E flat major Sonata No. 3, for violin and piano, gets a splendid performance from both as well, but once again, this is more Ricci’s show than Argerich’s. In the end, this is excellent stuff but, alas, the aggressively miked 1961 sound reproduction, while not bad, manages to capture much audience noise.

One of the most interesting items in this set is the 1960 Mozart Concerto No. 21. By her late teens Argerich was already a subtle artist but, as noted, favoring very fast tempos, in this case in the outer movements. Still, she is compelling in both, imparting a sense of elegance and effervescence to the music. The Andante middle movement (not yet associated with “Elvira Madigan” at the time) is beautifully phrased and actually very slightly understated by Argerich. The Cologne Radio SO plays well and the sound reproduction is at the expected standards of that day.

Many don’t think of Argerich as a great Beethoven player, because she has focused so heavily on the chamber music side of the composer, paying little attention to the piano sonatas. Here, in 1960, she delivers an exceptionally fine Seventh Sonata: nuanced, well-shaped and featuring a true epic sense, Argerich sounds possessed, as fortes are unusually potent and passions fiery. Her Adagio is powerful and filled with angst, for once divulging a deliberate and most effective tempo. The sound is reasonably good. If, before hearing this recording, someone had played it for me and asked me to speculate about the identity of the pianist, I would never have guessed Argerich, especially a teenaged Argerich. It is one of the best Sevenths I have ever heard. Schnabel, Barenboim, Brendel, Buchbinder and countless others have delivered fine accounts of this work, but this one by Argerich is truly superb, maybe one of the few I would now reach for in my collection.

Disc 3 opens with three Mozart Sonatas recorded in 1960 (8, 13, 18), all of which are well played, featuring subtly applied dynamics, imaginative phrasing, and a sense of elegance. The sound is okay. This is another composer Argerich has not generally been identified with, though she has played and recorded a significant number of Mozart’s works. A composer Argerich has been associated with, however, is Robert Schumann, whom she has suggested might be her favorite. This 1960 account of his Toccata brims with energy and color, but is hampered a bit by a reverberant, somewhat clangorous piano sound.

If ever there were a composer that one might think is far afield from Argerich, it is Brahms. True, she has performed much of his chamber music, as well as two-piano and four-hand repertory, but she hasn’t done either concerto or performed much of his solo output. Yet, here she is, playing the two Op. 79 Rhapsodies (1961) and delivering vital and well-shaped performances, where inner lyrical sections thrive with poetry and passion. The sound is reasonably good.

On the final disc we have three composers whose music has figured prominently in her repertory—Liszt, Chopin and Prokofiev. There are two versions of the Liszt Sixth Rhapsody here, the earliest of which, live from 1957 in Geneva in mediocre sound, may have come during or just after her victory in the competition there. The performance from 1961, however, is by far the better one and among the best versions ever. Byron Janis (Mercury; 1962) and especially Vincenzo Maltempo (Piano Classics; 2015), have excellent accounts as well. Argerich’s is a smörgåsbord of subtlety, virtuosity and thrills, the music vibrantly colorful but never turning black and blue from pianistic grandstanding. The sound is good.

Over the years Argerich has come to be regarded by many as among the finest Chopin interpreters. The Barcarolle and Scherzo No. 3 are from 1961 and both are a deft mixture of fire and poetry. It’s easy to see why she would win the Chopin Competition just a few years later. Indeed, the Fourth Ballade (1960) is also quite excellent. Good sound in these Chopin works too. I don’t know why the C major Etude, from 1955, when Argerich was fourteen or fifteen, was included: the performance is probably good but it’s hard to tell through the plentiful distortion and bad sound.

Prokofiev was another sort of favorite composer of Argerich. Her 1961 Toccata takes off with plenty of vigor and drive and never lets up. Argerich does not focus so much on the percussive side of the music, like Horowitz, Janis and many others, but rather on its unbounded energy and sense of mischief. It’s a great performance. The Sonata No. 3 is also very convincing and might rival Gary Graffman’s classic account but for its slightly too brisk tempos. Sound in the Prokofiev works is reasonably good.
Well, there you have it. This is young Argerich, sometimes errant Argerich, but mostly thrilling and thoroughly compelling Argerich. While her pacing can sometimes push limits, she is excellent most of the time; put simply, you are far more likely to be astounded than dismayed. Moreover, as suggested, there are many pleasant surprises here: her Beethoven Seventh Sonata, most of the Mozart, and the Brahms Rhapsodies. We already knew her Chopin and Prokofiev were outstanding, but I would not have expected the performances to be so extraordinary at such an early point in her career. There is a very brief biography given but no other album notes are provided, apart from performance dates. Except for one or two tracks, the sound reproduction ranges from dated but adequate to quite good. For Argerich fans who possess few or none of these early performances, this is an absolute must. Others with an interest in this kind of varied repertory might want to consider this as well. A most enjoyable four-disc set!

Robert Cummings

CD 1 [62:38]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937):
Piano Concerto in G major
Südwestfunk-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden/Ernest Bour
rec. 1960
Gaspard de la Nuit rec. 1960
Piano Sonatine in F-Sharp Minor, M. 40 rec. 1960
Jeux d'eau rec. 1961
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945):
Violin Sonatina, Sz. 55, BB 102a (Arr. A. Gertler)
Pablo de SARASATE (1844-1908):
Introduction and Tarantella, Op. 43
Ruggiero Ricci, (Violin)
rec. live St. Petersburg, Russia 1961

CD 2 [64:40]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791):
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K467 'Elvira Madigan'
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester/Peter Maag
rec. 1960
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827):
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3 rec. 1960
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12 No. 3
Ruggiero Ricci, (Violin)
rec. live St. Petersburg, Russia 1961

CD 3 [69:31]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791):
Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K310
Piano Sonata No. 13 in B flat major, K333
Piano Sonata No. 18 in D Major, K. 576 "Trumpet"
rec. 1960
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856):
Toccata in C major, Op. 7 rec. 1960
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897):
Rhapsodies (2), Op. 79 rec. 1961

CD4 [48:43]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886):
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 rec. 1961
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849):
Barcarole in F Sharp Major, Op. 60 rec. 1961
Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39 rec. 1961
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 rec. 1960
Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 1
rec. 1955, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953):
Toccata Op. 11
Sonata No. 3 in A Minor
rec. 1961
Franz LISZT (1811-1886):
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6
rec. 1957, Geneva Switzerland



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