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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mostly Martha

From the Back Pages Dept.: Martha Argerich’s recordings for DG and Philips have been released in a 48-CD box set, which I’ll be writing about shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a look back at my reviews of some of her live performances, back when the pianist was a regular visitor at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. These concerts took place in 2008.


YOU CAN EASILY FILL Saratoga’s Spa Little Theater with the area’s Martha Argerich cult followers, which happened last Monday. They cheered the performance of a less-than-minor Beethoven piece with the ardency of a stadium of Springsteen fans.

Martha Argerich
Put the same Argerich-ites in the SPAC amphitheater, and they barely make a dent. Which happened last Friday, when a less-than-half-filled hall cheered a major minor-Beethoven piece.

The program featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon joining frequent collaborator Argerich in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and first-chair violist Choon-Jin Chang as soloist in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy.” Had it been booked in Carnegie Hall, or any hall in a major international market, it would have been a sellout.

But the Capital Region remains culturally timid, hamstrung by a “that’s good enough for Albany” mentality that settles for the second-rate, the also-ran. Pursuing seats at a classical music concert might make you seem as if you’re putting on airs.

Argerich is famously limelight shy, although she directs an annual music festival in Switzerland and makes regular visits to SPAC to perform with ex-spouse Dutoit.

The high point of those recent two appearances was a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, a wrenching work composed in 1944 when the Nazi siege of Leningrad had just ended and a close friend of the composer had just died.

As a performer, Argerich approaches the stage modestly and sits at the piano almost as an afterthought. She dives into a piece as quickly as possible, but once it gets going you see someone in rapt concentration, her fingers moving as an afterthought. Suddenly the hands rise and fall and sound an unexpectedly robust fortissimo.

As in the passacaglia chords on piano alone that open the Trio’s third movement. These are harmonies intended to frighten, and the throbbing overtones were nerve-wracking. Violin and cello develop long-lined ideas on top of those chords for several choruses, rendering the sequence increasingly disturbing even as it takes on a beauty of sound.

Gautier Capuçon looks like a Central Casting image of a moody cellist. He leans back in his chair and embraces the instrument. With his longish hair and serious mien, he would look at home in the original Byrds line-up.

The Trio opens with plaintive cello harmonics, gorgeously rendered, soon joined by a lower-voiced violin. From the start, you’re thrown off-kilter by the unexpected voicings. Renaud has more buttoned-down look than his brother, but he has his Ray Charles moments – rocking back in his chair, stamping his feet – when the music gets frantic.

This happens in the second movement, a sardonic scherzo (there’s a surprise!) and especially in the finale, when an emotionally ambivalent Jewish melody is put through its paces. (As Shostakovich explained, “A cheerful melody is built here on sad intonations.”)

Compared to the Beaux Arts Trio, whose recording of the Trio champions its lyricism and passion, Argerich and the Capuçon brothers tore into it with barely suppressed fury. Were they layering on unnecessary emotion? Not to my ears. This is a piece that demands total devotion from the performers, and this approach can be heard in the composer’s own recording of it.

By contrast, the opening work, a piano quartet by Beethoven, benefitted from anything the performers could throw its way. The violist was Chamber Music Festival director Chantal Juillet, obviously sympathetic to the cause.

Written when Beethoven was in his teens, the work rips off a Mozart violin sonata. Like the Mozart, it’s more about the piano, using the accompanying strings as window dressing except for some second-movement flourishes. It does foreshadow the composer’s wit and originality, as in the first-movement development section when you’re tricked into thinking the recapitulation has begun early.

Beethoven wrote his Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra shortly after finishing the Eroica Symphony, but the concerto remains a more traditional (if overly ambitious) piece. It frequently favors the cello, which is the first-heard soloist, but soon enough marches into a byplay between soloists and orchestra that lacks the complexity of chamber works like the Archduke Trio but at least has the fun of that great big sound. And the Polonaise that ends the piece is infectiously charming.

Once again, the performance was all the more exciting because Argerich and the Capuçons held nothing back in the passion department, offering quick tempi and sudden dynamic contrasts and never looking to over-interpret any of the lyrical passages.

For lyricism, we got another big piece on the second half of the orchestral concerto: “Harold in Italy,” Berlioz’s tone-poem for viola and orchestra, commissioned by Paganini and inspired by Byron and a totally original piece that tells its tale without the fireworks typical of concertos (and which is why Paganini never performed it).

Violist Choon-Jin Chang has the challenge of painting lyrical pictures with his instrument’s contralto voice, that sea of orchestral sound always threatening to sweep it away. He did beautifully. Conductor Dutoit is always a sensitive accompanist, and supported the soloist nicely. The second movement, for example, titled “March of the Pilgrims,” gets into a hypnotic groove when the pacing, the dynamics, the solo singing and arpeggios – when all of those elements fall into place with conviction and transparency. And that’s what we got.

Speaking of low voices: the chamber concert also included Grieg’s rarely performed Cello Sonata, giving Gautier a chance to go all romantic on us. The second movement, marked Andante molto tranquillo, showcased Grieg’s skill at melodic development, and Argerich and Capuçon made the most of it. The long Allegro finale finds Grieg in his familiar Norwegian folk-melody mode, and this inspiring performance makes you wonder why the work hasn’t become a basic repertory piece.

Tonight (Thursday), Martha Argerich will be playing one of her signature pieces with the orchestra, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Martha Argerich, pianist, with Renaud Capuçon, violinist, Gautier Capuçon, cellist, Choon-Jin Chang, violist, Chantal Juillet, violist; the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 8 and Aug. 11

Metroland Magazine, 14 August 2008


PIANIST MARTHA ARGERICH finished a threesome of SPAC appearances last week with her signature piece: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a stirring, difficult work that she plays with effortless intensity.

Or so it seems. I arrived shortly after 6 to picnic on the lawn, and was able to watch Argerich, alone on the amphitheater stage, warming up by practicing some of the concerto’s fiendish passages at a fraction of her performance speed, watched by a few other early-arrivals. Roger Kahn wrote of interviewing a man who witnessed violinist Jascha Heifetz practicing the Beethoven concerto before a concert, a work which at that point Heifetz had performed hundreds of times. Yet he was slowly going over the Rondo, a testament to amazing discipline. And here was Argerich, revisiting very familiar phrases; stopping, going back over a brutal sequence of chords, from time to time enhancing them with some unexpectedly jazzy filigree.

By the time Charles Dutoit gave the downbeat for the program’s opener, Rossini’s La Cenerentola Overture, the lawn was comfortably occupied and the house nowhere near filled, as one of the summer’s – one of the year’s – most memorable events got underway. The overture did what it’s supposed to do: ease us into lively tunes with lots of twittering woodwinds, finish big, keep it under ten minutes. With playing of caliber this high, you can’t go wrong.

Argerich with Charles Dutoit,
albeit at the Verbier Festival.
Then the piece I suspect most of the audience came to see: the Prokofiev concerto. Written during a ten-year period when the composer wandered the world, it wraps his highly lyrical voice in episodes of great drama. Even the second movement, ostensibly slow, turns into a dramatic series of virtuoso variations.

Argerich and Dutoit recorded this concerto with the Montreal Symphony, but Thursday’s Saratoga performance was better paced and more dynamic. The paradox of the piece is that it’s relentlessly crunchy and yet possessed of incredibly infectious lyricism. The paradox of Argerich is that she makes her virtuosity seem so transparent that the lyricism is what you best remember of her playing.

The orchestra’s SPAC programming leans toward the programmatic, no doubt looking for a hook for a nervous audience. Thus “Harold in Italy,” “The Pines of Rome,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Planets” – and, last Thursday, Richard Strauss’s (in two senses) over-the-top “An Alpine Symphony). It musically recalls his teenaged journey up and over – and, for a while, lost in – the Bavarian Alps.

Scored for a massive orchestra, with wind machine and thundersheet, it’s trademark Strauss: lush, bombastic, skillfully constructed to offer the listener a satisfying journey. And amusing to fans of violin music, because the composer aped a passage from Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (and reportedly was unselfconscious about it, saying, “It’s beautiful! Why shouldn’t I use it?)

This was a regular-season work for the Philadelphians, and their playing, always high caliber, seemed to settle into an all-the-more-exciting groove because of the added familiarity. There’s a fusty classical-music game in which the know-it-alls praise this or that section of this or that orchestra, but a performance like this, in which each section, each player shone through magnificently, makes that kind of sophistry useless. Dutoit and the gang have a terrific rapport; the park, its annoying waterfall notwithstanding, is a lovely venue. So why wasn’t the house sold out? We live in culture’s black hole.

Martha Argerich, pianist; the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, conductor.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 14   

Metroland Magazine, 14 August 2008

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