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The Martha Of Us All

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/07/2008 -  
Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Opus 10
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor With Trumpet And Strings, Opus 35
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)

Martha Argerich (Piano), David Bilger (Solo Trumpet)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)

Martha Argerich (© Susech Bayat/DG)

Yes, one thing in the musical universe is better than listening to Martha Argerich play a piano concerto with her one-time partner and always best conductor, Charles Dutoit. That is listening to Martha Argerich play two piano concertos on the same program.

The Argentinean-born virtuoso is heard too infrequently in New York. She has been scheduled several times, with last-minute decisions preventing her performing. She has a world outside her Swiss residence which needs her. But the gray-haired force of nature also has audiences—not claques—who demand her presence. And the Philadelphia Orchestra with their Chief Conductor and Artistic Adviser Charles Dutoit very much at the helm when he brought his ensemble to Carnegie Hall last night.

The concert was very much to French-Swiss Dutoit’s penchant for fiery French and roaring Russian music. It started with Ravel’s other waltzes, these his own orchestration of the noble sentimental kind. La Valse took off on the great Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss and family. These waltzes were of a gentler kind, more like Schubert ländler and tossed-off Schubert waltzes.

They have been played better, and certainly Dutoit with his old Montreal symphony gave a more emphatic fervor to the pieces. Here, they were light, the assez vite waltz was poignant enough, the climaxes were powerful but hazy. That soft epilogue should be like a breath of fresh air after candlelit frolics. Here it was simply a letdown, despite the usual Philadelphia lovely solo wind playing.

The end of the show would also be Ravel, combined with Mussorgsky, a partnership of exotic composers and exotic music.

But now behold the two concertos in the middle – both of them “juvenile” works from two of the three greatest Russian composers of the last century. Yet “juvenile” hardly means puerile. Prokofiev started this piano concerto when he was in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and it was premiered the following year, when he was 21. Shostakovich, in his late 20’s, and an already controversial youngster, was in a jolly mood when he wrote this, so much so that a light-hearted trumpet was needed to give glitter to the concerto.

But both composers were enfants terribles, and both works show a deftness and difficulty to which only the most daring pianists can aspire.

Enter Martha Argerich. We all know her Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, probably the best recording ever. (though a live Bronfman performance this year easily beat that). The First Concerto, though, if needing less emotional depth, needs the explosive technique which can defy any fingers.

After that grand opening (one of my favorites in all Prokofiev), Ms. Argerich simply galloped over the keyboard with hardly a thought. You couldn’t say her hands “danced” over the piano. They became like sub-atomic particles moving too quickly to put down the same space and time.

Would this be considered simply showy? Well, yes, because the composer wanted to show what a showy pianist he was. But the floridity was as colorful as it was quick. In her first chords, she could give fractional notes different volumes. She took climaxes in her stride and immediately sailed over the keyboard again. At times, she seemed to be talking to herself, so intent was she on the piano, but she and Maestro Dutoit know each other too well to worry about synchronization. It was part of the magic.

After intermission, Shostakovich’s jolly work was played, but next to the Prokofiev sounded a little bit too much circusy. Shostakovich never much cared for jazz, but was intrigued by American popular songs (he once orchestrated Tea For Two), and here he took on French chansons, turning them upside-down, sideways but enjoying them all.

As did Ms. Argerich. She can be the most emotional fiery pianist in the world when necessary, but that was hardly necessary here. Instead, she led the orchestra and trumpeter David Bilger through, what could have been a Slavic version of Poulenc.

In this case, Ms. Argerich didn’t need to break a sweat. It was a glittering trick with orchestra, a divertissement for ten fingers which, this one evening, surrendered temperament and thunder for daring tricks and lapidary sparkle.

Harry Rolnick



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