Carte Blanche – Martha Argerich = Works of BEETHOVEN, SCHUMANN, SCHUBERT, RAVEL etc. – DGG (2 CDs)

The concert from Verbier from 27 July 2007 will endure as a classic moment on all counts.

Carte Blanche – Martha Argerich = BEETHOVEN: Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1 “Ghost”; SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen, Op. 15; SCHUBERT: Rondo in A Major, D. 951 “Grand Rondeau”; RAVEL: Ma Mere l’Oye; SCHUBERT: Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in a minor, D. 821; BARTOK: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; LUTOSLAWSKI: Variations on a Theme of Paganini; Encore: Improvisation on “Happy Birthday” (for Lily Maisky) – Martha Argerich, p./ Lang Lang, p./ Julian Rachlin, v./ Mischa Maisky, cello/ Yuri Bashmet, viola/ Renaud Capucon, v./ Gabriela Montero, p. – DGG 479 5096, (2 CDs) (7/31/15) 72:46; 64:44 (Distr. by Universal] ****:

These live performances from the 2007 Verbier Festival (27 July) exist as a direct result of Martin Tison Engstroem’s invitation to Martha Argerich – whom the Founder and Director of the Festival had known since 1969 – for her to collaborate with her musician friends, preferably youthful, to make music in whatever repertory they chose. Argerich, who predominantly invests her energies into chamber music, does appear solo in the Schumann Kinderszenen Suite. Her rendition of the Schumann preserves its precious intimacy, touched by her sense of rubato and dramatic poise. For fleetness of fingers, her Hasche-Mann serves as a demonstration and a challenge. The Schumann capacity for maerchen, fairy-tale march narratives, is well served in Wichtige Begebenheit. The Argerich Traeumerei seems intent to rival Horowitz for lingering atmosphere. By the suite’s end, we feel Schumann, having “spoken” his infinite nostalgia, has found a true votary in Argerich.

The opening “Ghost” Trio of Beethoven has Argerich in support of Julius Rachlin and Mischa Maisky in what proceeds as a beautifully balanced performance, a combination of visceral excitement and tonal delicacy. After a rather whirlwind Allegro vivace e con brio, the three players make every attempt to conjure Hamlet’s father’s ghost in the eponymous Largo assai ed espressivo in d minor, whose eerie progressions, its startling stops and starts, moved Czerny (1842) to make the literary analogy. Between the weaving chromatic harmonies and the use of tremolando, the musicians capture the unearthly effect impressively. Consequently, the airy Presto provides a genuine sense of relief from a huge dramatic tension. Still, the two string players and Argerich can jar us with their entry attacks and bristling scale figures. 


Founder Engstroem, in his former role of A&R VP at Deutsche Grammophon, had secured Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang for the label. Here, the often ostentatious young artist joins Argerich at the keyboard bench for two four-hand works, Schubert A Major Grand Rondeau and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Marked Allegretto quasi Andantino, the 1828 Schubert work possesses a lyrical girth of its own, rife with voice-leading effects and syncopations. The rendition here remains direct and unaffected. Often, in the course of the progressions, we can hear echoes of the posthumous A Major Sonata. Commentators are also fond of relating the theme and structure of the piece to Beethoven’s Op. 90 Sonata in E Minor, its second movement. The last bars project a note of finality on what was, in fact, the composer’s last four-hand composition. The Mother Goose (1910) arrangement for four hands proves magically effective, an evocation of Perrault personae in exotic colors. Again, the Gallic aesthetic formula Luxe, calme et volupte proves the rule. As required, a subdued anguish touches us, a sense of youthful “paradise lost.” At moments, we might be in the presence of a gamelan sonority, especially in the brilliant Laideronnette movement. With a joyful tear, we leave the The Fairy Garden, but at least, through the profound magic of recordings, we can return at our will.

I found the Yuri Bashmet realization, on viola, of Schubert’s 1824 Arpeggione Sonata with Argerich thoroughly convincing. Whatever the advantages of the original instrument – a kind of hybrid cello with six strings, bowed and plucked like a guitar – the arrangement perfectly suits both Bashmet’s instrument and musical temper. Essentially a lyrical expression, the piece does have its uplifting, melodic moments, especially in the Adagio, with its colorfully long sustained notes. Argerich adds her own colorations and inflections of the harmony to produce a rendition that lingers long after the Allegretto last movement has passed away.

Bartok’s 1922 Violin Sonata No. 1 seems to have adopted Ravel’s contention that the violin and piano remain antagonists rather than partners. Gifted violin player Renaud Capucon joins Argerich for this often clashing titan of a work, whose dissonances – persistent alternations of tempo and major/minor confrontations – and demented excursions into bravura improvisation continue to challenge our sensibilities. Yet, repeated hearings of the work reveal its idiosyncratic moments of modal, impassioned lyricism and harmonized collaboration. Capucon opens with a song, perhaps Magyar in spirit, which returns at the end of the massive Allegro appassionato first movement, which in moments of dreamy repose, alludes to Bartok’s love of Debussy. A solo violin meditation begins the Adagio, quite tranquil in the context of the whole. An eerie village dance drone strikes up mid-way, and we might think of Carpathian mountain images. A fiery finale, Allegro, has the Magyar sparks flying, wailing, strumming, and occasionally singing with an urgency that sweeps the appreciative audience away.

Venezuelan virtuoso Gabriela Montero – justly famous her explosive improvisational ability – attends one keyboard with Argerich at the other for Witold Lutosawski’s 1941 Paganini Variations, which the composer premiered with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik. Relatively brief, the piece compresses the original Paganini bravura into a two-piano arrangement that juxtaposes diatonic, chromatic, and polytonal harmony in extraordinary assaults on our imagination. The motions of the two pianos often rings with Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninov, but the color variety includes Bartok, Prokofiev and the modal character in late Debussy. The range of effects becomes encyclopedic, and the whole proceeds with a secure panache that makes this performance a classic. Montero than applies her solo apparatus to a tango arrangement of “Happy Birthday” for Mischa Maisky’s daughter, Lily, The tune begins glibly enough, but its contrapuntal possibilities emerge in a jazzy, bluesy, rendition that would have had Gershwin and Ellington in thrall. We are.

—Gary Lemco


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