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Martha, Martha, tu sparisti / e il mio cor col tuo n'ando!

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Beethoven, Piano Concertos 2/3, Martha Argerich, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (released on November 9, 2004)
The performance of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich with the National Symphony Orchestra was, in my mind, one of the season's most exciting prospects. It was not Argerich at fault this time (so we don't have to blame the possibility that our anti-cancellation prayers were not sincere enough), but the fragile health of the conductor of the NSO's Shostakovich festival, Mstislav Rostropovich. So, instead of finally hearing Argerich play live for the first time this evening (it's rare enough, like the 2005 Roque d'Anthéron festival, now available on YouTube), I am consoling myself with some rare performances by Argerich captured on CD and DVD (besides the 2006 CD with Dora Schwarzberg I reviewed recently).

I sincerely hope that one of you Washington concert planners is trying to figure out how to get the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to play here in Washington. Judging by concert reviews I have read and recordings we have been hearing, Claudio Abbado is in the midst of a twilight miracle with that group. This recording of the second and third Beethoven piano concerti, with Martha Argerich, recently came across my desk and it is a marvel. To say anything more would be beside the point. You may recall that Argerich won a 2006 Grammy -- Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (with Orchestra) -- for this disc and highly deserved it was indeed. Both concerti have that unique sound, of a legendary soloist, a legendary conductor, and each musician of the closely knit Mahler Chamber Orchestra on the same page and giving an extraordinary and singular reading of works we have all heard many, many times. Highly recommended.

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Schumann, Piano Concerto in A minor / Liszt, Funérailles / Ravel, Jeux d'eau (released on October 9, 2001)

Argerich on YouTube:

Schumann Concerto 1

Schumann Concerto 2

Schumann Concerto 3

Schumann Concerto 4

Liszt, Funérailles

Ravel's Jeux d'eau
For a 1976 appearance on Radio-Canada, Martha Argerich left a relatively rare video recording of herself playing a concerto, in this case the Schumann A minor, op. 54. The sound is not very good, and on the copy I watched there were a few video glitches, but the director keeps the camera mostly on Argerich's hands, as if we were standing over her right shoulder. This makes for an interesting comparison with Hélène Grimaud's recent recording of the same concerto. Argerich, at about the same age in 1977 as Grimaud is now, has a similar volatility, judging by the sometimes confused gestures of the conductor in this DVD, Franz-Paul Decker. Her technique, however, is much more ferocious than Grimaud's. Argerich plays the famous dotted rhythms of the opening bars like percussive jabs at the keyboard, with martial, clipped articulation and flawless accuracy. Her attack could be ultrasharp, either with reinforced thumb stabs or needle-like détaché of her large fingers. The cadenza at the end of the first movement veers between tender rapture and heart-pounding virtuosity. The tempi of the fast movements are superhuman. Grimaud's orchestra (the Staatskapelle Dresden with Esa-Pekka Salonen) is better, but here the CBC Symphony Orchestra does just fine.

The rest of this recital is devoted to two big solo pieces, both of them in remarkable performances. Liszt's Funérailles is an odd piece, with a rather enigmatic and dissonant opening section. You can see that percussive touch at the death knell (at 1:30 in the video on view at YouTube). Argerich's hands are strong and fairly large: at one point she plays an octave tremolo with thumb and third/fourth finger together instead of her pinkie, and it's not much of a stretch. In the return to the fast section (at about 6:25), the bass starts to rumble in a repeated pattern. When it speeds up, that turns into repeated octaves (at 6:59), and Argerich's left hand moves so quickly that it's only a blur. You have to see it to believe it. This wonderful DVD ends with an evocative performance of Ravel's Jeux d'eau (also on YouTube, seen below). The sounds are all impeccably aquatic, like fountains of crashing and silvery water, showing Argerich's finesse. The voicing in that crossed-hands coda (at 4:29) blows my mind every time I watch it, and the expression that passes over Argerich's sphinxian face for about one second at the end -- is it relief? satisfaction? pride? bliss? -- is a rare, unguarded moment.

Maurice Ravel, Jeux d'eau, Martha Argerich

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Martha Argerich and Friends (1982, released on September 26, 2006)
Of less interest, because some of the performances are not as extraordinary, but still worthwhile is a DVD called Martha Argerich and Friends, recordings made at the Munich Piano Summer Festival, in 1982. This collaborative recital opens with Mozart's Piano Sonata for Four Hands in D Major (K. 381), with Argerich on secondo and Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou (1953-1993) on the primo part. Economou does his best to keep up with Argerich in a pleasing performance, with a few missed notes here and there. It is then cellist Mischa Maisky's turn, with Argerich at the piano for Schumann's Phanatasiestücke, op. 73. Maisky, looking 80s enough to be a member of Air Supply, gives an impassioned but not very precise performance.

What really makes this DVD worthwhile are the last two selections, works for two pianos, with Martha Argerich seated across back-to-back Steinways from Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire. This was the first time I had ever heard Rachmaninov's Suite for Two Pianos (op. 17, no. 2), and the wave of post-Romantic revulsion his music normally inspires did not overwhelm me. Plus, if you think Rachmaninov wrote for large and challenging sounds with just one piano, with two pianos he is like a kid in a candy shop. Freire and Argerich get almost all those notes and turn in a beautifully shaped and textured performance. In the stunning last movement, Argerich tosses off the repeated-note motifs, at breakneck speed, with awe-inspiring facility. Freire has his own confrontation with those patterns and does equally well. It just may be enough for me to say it: Rachmaninov wrote some good music. Fine, I admit it. Someone has to put that on YouTube -- oh, wait, someone already did.

Rachmaninov, Suite for Two Pianos (op. 17, no. 2)
Nelson Freire and Martha Argerich

Switching positions, Argerich and Freire conclude with Ravel's La Valse, equal parts suavity and mania, in the truly orchestral two-piano version. When you hear this piece, you understand why reactionaries thought the waltz would destroy the very fabric of society: it is music that could drive an otherwise innocent person wild. It is hard to imagine what my reaction would be to experience this kind of incendiary playing in person, but I am pretty sure that I would whoop and holler just as we hear the audience doing. No one has put this track on YouTube -- yet! -- but here are all the other videos that have something to do with Martha Argerich on YouTube. Click with caution. You'll be there for hours.

Deutsche Grammophon B0003398-02 / Video Artists International DVD 4210 / Pioneer Classics PC-10356

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