The piano dominates the 2015 Lugano Festival, the convocation of fine chamber music performances. 

Martha Argerich & Friends Live from Lugano 2015” =   BRAHMS: Horn Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 40 (arr. Viola); Scherzo from F.A.E. Sonata; Clarinet Trio in a minor, Op. 114; SCHUMANN: Six Canonic Studies (arr. Debussy), Op. 56; SCHUBERT: Variations for 2 Pianos, D. 813; RIES: Piano Quintet in b minor, Op. 74; TURINA: Piano Trio No. 2 in b minor, Op. 76; BARTOK: Rumanian Folk Dances; DEBUSSY: En blanc et noir; BACALOV: Portena for Two Pianos and Orchestra; POULENC: Sonata for Two Pianos; GLASS: Suite from Les enfants terrible (arr. for 3 pianos); GINASTERA: Dances from Estancia – Martha Argerich, p./ Lilya Zilberstein, p./ Nathan Braude, viola/ Ilya Gringolts, v./ Alexander Mogilevsky, p./ Mayu Kisima, v./ Akane Sakai, p./ Paul Meyer, clar./ Gautier Capucon, v./ Nicholas Argerich, p./ Andrey Baranov & Lyda Chen, v./ Jing Zhao, cello/ Enrico Fagone, doublebass/ Alissa Margulis, v./ Natalia Margulis, cello/ Jura Margulis, p./ Geza Hosszu-Legucky, v./ Stephen Kovacevich, p./ Eduardo Hubert, p./ Sergio Tiempo, p./ Karin Lechner, p./ Giorgia Tomassi, Carlo Maria Gringuoli and Alessandro Stella, pianos (Ginastera)/ Orch. della Svizzera Italiana/ Alexander Vedernikov – Warner Classics 08256646285495 (3 CDs) 68:55, 69:45, 79:57 (5/27/16) ****:

This set presents the fourteenth season of June concerts assembled by Argentine piano virtuoso Martha Argerich that constitute her Progetto in Lugano that invites international musicians for collegial chamber music performances. Argerich appears in five selected ensembles, at a second keyboard or sharing one keyboard, four hands. She makes a vivid impression with Lilya Zilberstein in the Six Canonic Etudes of Robert Schumann, extending her fine association with this composer’s music.  In the Schubert A-flat Variations, often a work shared by Benjamin Britten and Sviatoslav Richter, she plays with Alexander Mogilevsky. Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich recorded Debussy’s forward-looking suite En blanc et noir in 1975; they celebrate Kovacevich’s 75th birthday with another reading of this suite which so outraged Saint-Saens when he first heard it.

Composer Luis Bacalov – noted for his score to the film Il Postino – finds sturdy, energetic playing for his Portena (Latitude 34 degrees, 36 minutes, 30 seconds), a map designation for Buenos Aires.  A concerted work for two pianos (with Eduardo Hubert) in the form of a theme with ten variations, the work calls upon a number of styles, including dance music that might recall the national ways of Villa-Lobos.  The music remains tonal – even polytonal – and accessible, with some colorful touches from the solo violin (in Variation IV) and nocturnal strings (in Variation VI). The blood pumps in Variation VIII, when the tympani enter, but the music’s dynamism subsides into a fine mist. Shades of eerie Ligeti mark Variation IX, which leads to Variation X, the Corrientes y 9 de Julio, a feria of spacious colors. The two keyboard players indulge in a romantic cadenza of intimate beauty until a solo flute returns the orchestra to the scene and the first tempo resumes. The Finale, barely 25 seconds in length, enjoys a colorful abandon that has the audience in raptures. Argerich appears briefly but stylishly with violinist Geza Hosszu-Legocky in the Szekely arrangement of Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances, a hearty and earthy rendition that traverses a range of sonic effects, including some high, nasal harmonics in the violin.  The raspy, devilishly thrilling last dance has the violin bouncing and us tapping in happy sympathy.

The remainder of the concerts disperse dazzling musicianship among various principals and feature some unusual repertory: to wit, the Piano Quintet by Beethoven pupil Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), composed in 1815 in the same scoring as the Schubert “Trout” Quintet.  In a three-movement form, the first, Grave – Allegro con brio, announces it s “symphonic” intentions early.  Pianist Lilya Zilberstein displays her own, charismatically liquid and stentorian keyboard style at the outset. The bass part that anchors much of the harmony has Enrico Fagone, principal of the Svizzera Italiana Orchestra. The ensuing Larghetto opens with a winning song from cellist Jing Zhao, extended by Zilberstein over plucked strings. The Nocturne includes some excellent ornamentation from string quartet and piano, even a quasi-cadenza for the piano.  We attacca to the Rondo: Allegro, a passionately excited movement rife with liquid piano runs, a march tune, and lovely work for violin Andrey Baranov. The high good spirits of this work via this performance make us covet more appearances of this composer’s craft.

There are three Brahms works included in the programs, and each brings virtues and musical rewards, perhaps most definitely in the Clarinet Trio performance that brings together Paul Meyer, clarinet; Gautier Capucon, violin; and Nicholas Angelich, piano. This late work of Brahms gratifies less through virtuosity than by way of sincerity of expression. The relatively brief but potent Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata joins two Japanese performing artists – Mayu Kishima, violin and Akane Sakai, piano – both newcomers to the Argerich coterie but sure to be reinvited.  My quibble arises from the instrumentation of the Op. 40 Horn Trio, in which violist Nathan Braude substitutes for the horn part proper, which for me loses the “hunting” and the peculiar, ardent melancholy of the original instrument. As a “remedy,” I sought out my old, recorded version by John Barrows – with Szigeti and Horszowski – for the sonorities I miss.
One of the “sleeper” items realized among these concerts comes in the form of Joaquin Turina’s 1933 Piano Trio No. 2 in b minor, a thoroughly ingratiating work cast in a neo-Romantic style that incorporates Spanish rhythms and French taste. Performed as a “family affair,” the principals – Alissa Margulis, Natalia Margalis, and Jura Margulis – the music exudes Andalusian colors and eccentric bit captivating rhythms, such as the 5/8 of the middle movement, Molto vivace. While the first movement indulges in waltzes, the last movement, Lento – Andante mosso – Andante – declaims a courtly elegance, also set as an aristocratic waltz. This last movement, typical of D’Indy and Franck, revisits themes from the two prior movements. The playing glistens and shines with natural affection, and the audience expresses unconcealed ardor immediately.

Cast in a more neo-Classical mode, the Poulenc Sonata for Two Pianos – performed by Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner at the same keyboard – bears the influence of musical contemporaries Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartok. Besides the “barbarous” sonorities the keyboard often raises, a degree of romantic sentiment manages to sneak in, almost for spite. The second movement – Allegro molto – enjoys that “boulevardier” attitude of the musical sophisticate, replete with bell or gamelan sounds.  The sound of bells spills over into the Andante lyrico, which occasionally acquires the quiet fervor of a modernized Bach chorale. The raucous Epilogue: Allegro giocoso supplies a dazzling toccata that likes sudden, intense surges of energy and the occasional discordance or solemn melody that shake up our complacency.

Given the hegemony of the piano at this festival, three-piano arrangements to conclude the June 14 series does not surprise.  The Philip Glass suite from his arrangement (2005) of the Jean Cocteau tragedy Les enfants terribles offers four sections: Overture, The Somnambulist, She Took the Path, and Paul’s End.  The ostinati in the music represent the snow, a symbol of Nature’s implacability. The sonorities alternate between clarity and density, between light humor and mystical solemnity. Issues of injured pride, jealousy, and conspiracy intermingle in “She Took the Path,” a martial, dire continuum of notes that remind us how quickly “a game” can become fatal. Paul, who had been injured by a snowball earlier, tries to poison himself.  The keyboards build a series of layered rhythmic lines that become top-heavy, an avalanche of emotion.

The C.M. Griguoli arrangement of Dances from the 1941 ballet Estancia highlight Ginastera’s relentless energy and capacity for South American folk idioms. Only the “Wheat Dance” offers any relief from the Ginastera formula for motor combustion. The “Dance of the Cattle Men,” for all of its subtle sophistication, serves as a preparation for the furious Malambo, the aggressive gaucho dance whose 6/8 rhythm and stream of eighth notes has the keyboards in glissando and staccato modes, shining and keening in figures that bring down the house. For all I know, they’re still clapping.

—Gary Lemco