Life From Buenos Aires = SCHUMANN, DEBUSSY & BARTOK – Argerich & Barenboim – DGG

The music that emanates from the Buenos Aires Festival de Musica y Reflexion means to dazzle us and test our limits, artistic and emotional.

Live From Buenos Aires = SCHUMANN: Six Studies in Canon Form, Op. 56; DEBUSSY: En Blanc et Noir; BARTOK: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion – Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim, pianos/ Pedro Manuel Torrejon Gonzalez & Lev Loftus, percussion – DGG 479 5563, 59:02 (3/11/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:  

Musical friends since their childhood, Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim returned to their native city, Buenos Aires, in 2015 for a concert at the Teatro Colon, 26 July. Their Festival de Musica y Reflexion means to maintain and revitalize the cultural community of Buenos Aires in the Teatro Colon, reputed for having “the best acoustic in the world.”

The two-piano recital opens with Robert Schumann’s 1845 Six Studies in Canon Form for Pedal Piano. Shortly after having moved to Dresden, Schumann began teaching his wife Clara counterpoint. The couple had also just acquired a pedal-piano attachment for working on their organ playing. Dating back to the 18th century, the rare instrument came equipped with a pedal-board like that found on an organ, either with its own separate soundboard and strings or with hammers to strike the strings of the original piano. The Schumann instrument likely had a separate board designed to fit underneath a standard grand piano. Claude Debussy made the arrangement for duo keyboards which is employed by Argerich and Barenboim. The rich Schumann textures – the first in C Major – fuse with Baroque sonority, often to lulling effect. The second of the set, Mit innigem Ausdruck, conveys much to suggest a lyrical Bach chorale. The Andantino sounds like a cross between a movement in Kinderszenen and an opening motif of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. The Innig movement could be the equivalent of a Mendelssohn song without words, especially in the elastic rubato each of the principals employs. The second of the two movements designated Nicht zu schnell has a playful, scherzando buoyancy that makes it an endearing maerchen. Finally, Argerich and Barenboim play Adagio, a stately epilogue rife with the nostalgia Schumann patented.

Debussy claimed that his 1915 suite En blanc et noir “derives its color and feeling merely from the sonority of the piano.” Argerich and Barenboim invest a colossal polyphonic and nervous energy into the first movement, marked Avec emportement. The often-clashing harmonies converge into a massive chord in C Major. Commentators point out that most of the Debussy correspondence during this time addressed his hatred of war, and his middle movement, Lent, Sombre – au Lieutentant Jacques Charlot – dedicated to a slain French army officer – openly points an accusatory musical finger – a la Abel Gance – at the horror of war. The distant drum rolls under a plainchant in the keyboard signify an epoch loss of innocence. The added layering on Ein feste Burg intensifies the savage irony of the occasion. The last movement, Scherzando, is dedicated to Stravinsky and builds up a series of pastiche-like energies, sparkling mosaics of modally ambiguous color – like the Stravinsky Op. 4 Fireworks – that eventually meld quietly into a D Major chord.

It was in Basel 1938 that Bartok and his wife Ditta Pasztory premiered the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion, a sonorous mix that had first appeared, in nascent form, in the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926). The range of color remains extraordinary: pitched xylophone and tuned tympani along with unpitched cymbals and drums. The weirdly anarchic opening moves by degrees to a sense of form and architecture, even to a mystical radiance. The first movement tests our ears as well as the stamina of the performers. At its height, the music of the first movement pulsates and tolls in a manner that might find a rival in the Kiev of Mussorgsky. The music breaks off with two minutes to go with a fugue introduced by a snare roll. Hypnotic and blazing, the musical amalgan still manages to astonish even after the better part of 80 years.

The Lento, ma non troppo, proffers the Bartok “night music” formula. The acoustic mix – courtesy of recording engineer Julian Schwenkner – captures the dazzling and often surreal quality of the sound space. The relatively simple ternary pattern seems subdued by the other-worldly atmosphere that evolves within the song-form. The last movement, Allegro non troppo, releases the Bartok folk idioms and rhythms in a complex mix. The energies become often manic, then just as suddenly, the carnival simplifies to a childish series of patterns entirely whimsical. All of this music comes to us con amore, a labor of love that thrills and tests us at once.

—Gary Lemco

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