Martha Argerich Early Recordings (Works of MOZART, BEETHOVEN, PROKOFIEV, RAVEL – DGG (2 discs)

Youthful studio recordings by Martha Argerich provide admirers with several important works added to her discography.  

Martha Argerich – Early Recordings = MOZART: Piano Sonata No. 18 in D Major, K. 576; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3; PROKOFIEV: Toccata, Op. 11; Piano Sonata No. 3 in a minor, Op. 29; Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83; RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit; Sonatine – Martha Argerich, p. – DGG  479 5978 (2 CDs) 36:00, 54:50 (5/20/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Assembled from German studio recordings made in Cologne and Hamburg, 1960 and 1967, these performances by Argentine virtuoso Martha Argerich (b. 1941) complement her commercial records with works that tend to reveal a more intellectual string in her multicolored harp. Having studied with German virtuoso-pedagogue Friedrich Gulda, Argerich reveals a personality that eschews mere imitation of a respected master. The first movement of Mozart’s 1789 D Major Sonata (23 January 1960) – which Argerich had prepared for the 1957 Busoni Competition in Balzano – enjoys a lusty energy that imparts notable buoyancy to its canonic devices, its “trumpet” fanfares, and penchant for two-part imitation. The intimacy of the occasion lights up the A Major Adagio, which basks in galant serenity. The last movement Allegretto becomes an object lesson in accented triplets, rife with easy virtuosity.  The graceful fluency of the performance attests to a potent sense of style that does not devolve into fitful aggression. This Mozart sonata may serve as perhaps the only such document we have of Argerich in this repertory.

The Beethoven 1798 D Major Sonata (rec. 8 September 1960) presents Argerich in a more manic mode than we find in the survey of this Beethoven sonata by her mentor Gulda. The opening Presto – even in its own time – demanded much from the pianists of Beethoven’s day, given the intention to expand the keyboard beyond what the instrument could provide, but which the modern keyboard can accommodate, high and low. The alternations of dynamic coloring that Argerich invests into the series of cascading runs and witty dialogues makes us wonder at their hues and their speed of execution.

Whatever sturm und drang the music possesses becomes explicit in the affecting Largo e mesto second movement, whose deep bass tones and high whispers resonate with a pungency that might suit the medium of the string quartet. A three-note pattern haunts the text of this often tragic movement, a trope that the last movement redeems with humor. The stately grace we find in Argerich’s congenial Menuetto manages to communicate the power of her trill and graduated dynamics, when required. The last movement Rondo displays mercurial, quicksilver grace and feline litheness, at once.  The explosive gallops testify as much to Beethoven’s iconoclastic classicism as they do to Argerich “the thoroughbred racehorse.”

It could be that Argerich was born to play the music of Prokofiev, as the items on Disc 2 indicate. The 1912 Toccata (rec. 16 September 1960) has a fury and relentlessness that easily usurps her later 1961 commercial record for DGG. The “transcendent virtuosity” applies to both composer and performer, especially since the percussive, demonic bravura of the piece suffuses so much of Prokofiev’s later opera. The Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit derives from same 16 September 1960 session. Besides the explicit technical virtuosity demanded by Ravel as an analogy to the poems by Bertrand, the Spanish temper that explodes in Scarbo perfectly suits the Argerich ethos. The sheer control of color throughout the three character sketches likely reflects the coaching of yet another potent influence in Argerich’s evolution, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.  While Argerich went on to record Gaspard in 1974, this rendition bursts with a youthful ardor and impetuosity that cannot be denied.

The next Prokofiev work from 16 March 1960, the a minor Sonata of Prokofiev, confirms the “racehorse” comparison. Subtitled “From Old Notebooks,” this highly compressed piece from 1917 proffers fewer than seven minutes of flying-trapeze color at the keyboard. Opening Allegro tempestoso in 4/4, the music surges ff into its second, more lyrical subject, Moderato, tranquillo, legato, semplice e dolce. Argerich builds the long furies of the coda from the ground up, catching white phosphorus as she proceeds to a blazing climax.  Refinement and sensuous textures mark the Argerich rendering of Ravel’s 1903 Sonatine (rec. 8 September 1960). She lavishes tender, loving care upon the Mouvement de menuet, a troubadour’s song in D-flat. The Anime takes all sorts of dynamic and metrical risks, especially in color gradations. We had already felt Argerich’s capacity to make color in the first movement Modere, set in the Aeolian mode. The toccata brilliance of the Anime brings the music full circle, into F-sharp Minor with a passing reference to the 5/4 of the Modere. The sheer rush of notes and cascades from Argerich manages to hide the exotic classicism that defines much of this competition-piece creation by Ravel.

The Prokofiev Seventh Sonata from 31 October 1967 will bear comparison with the Argerich reading some twelve years later, in 1979 Amsterdam, the performance of which is slightly faster in the first movement. This first of the so-called “wartime sonatas” communicates a restless mystery (“inquieto”) not entirely traceable to the fate of Russia during WW II. When the music plunges the percussive and harmonic depths, Argerich does not fear to beard the dragon. The figures collide, mesh, separate, sing, and then run wild. The Andante coloroso casts a melancholy beauty upon the scene, with Argerich’s middle voices particularly noteworthy. The bass chords, however, command our attention for the anguish they possess, certainly attributable to the Schumann song to which they allude. The finale, Precipitato, erupts with the jazzy violence that both asserts and disrupts “the life force.” Argerich might have intended to pulverize her listeners with the machine-gun staccato notes and thundering chords that beckon to this pianist’s incendiary temperament.

—Gary Lemco

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