Review: Argerich Recital

by Shirley Fleming, for American Record Guide

Copyright (c) Record Guide Publications Jul/Aug 2000

What a night
Photo by Melanie Previte, Copyright (c) 2000.           Click for larger image.

By Shirley Fleming, July 1, 2000,
for American Record Guide

Carnegie Hall Recital, March 25, 2000

No admirer of Martha Argerich (and is there anyone who isn't?)* needs to be told of New Yorkers' sense of excitement when it was announced that she would break her self-imposed exile from solo piano appearances and perform alone in a major US recital hall for the first time in 19 years. The hall was Carnegie, the date was March 25, and tickets went with the wind. It was to be half a solo evening, the second part to be shared with the Juilliard Quartet in a performance of the Schumann Quintet and with Nelson Freire in Ravel's two-piano version of La Valse.

When Argerich walked on stage that night the reception was, predictably, tumultuous. And probably everyone in the house was thinking of the unprecedented interview that had appeared on the front page of that morning's New York Times in which she had discussed her personal health and psychological problems with critic Anthony Tommasini. She revealed that she had been fighting cancer for ten years (a rumor often heard), that it had spread to lungs and lymph nodes and that she had undergone lung surgery three years ago. The disease is in remission. In one of the most poignant remarks to Tommasini she said she was postponing her annual medical check-up until after the recital, because she was too nervous to face it before.

On stage that night she wasted not a moment-giving the audience barely time to sit down before embarking on Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor, a performance that ranged in touch and sonority from organ-like resonance in the opening Grave adagio through a fleet, clear fugue and a limpid Sarabande to an electric, spark-spitting Capriccio. The entire performance had the pianist's trademark tension and dynamism in repertory not normally associated with her.

Two Chopin works - the F-sharp minor Barcarolle and the crunching Scherzo No. 3 - tightened the tension several more notches. Argerich stripped away any vestige of sentimentality in the Barcarolle, playing it with a kind of directness and strength that gave it muscular power and a fine clarity in the glistening fountains that shower down in the right hand. The Scherzo, at breathtaking speed, was an experience of sheer grit and guts, hugely gripping and at the same time full of color and wonderfully diaphanous in its delicate passages. (Standing ovations are tediously routine these days, but the Chopin brought on a heartfelt one at mid-concert.)

Prokofieff is the composer with whom Argerich is probably most closely associated, and his Sonata No. 7 brought into focus the qualities that ignite her playing so vividly. The first movement (marked inquieta - an understatement) was an exhibition of ferocity and whiplash intensity; the melodic warmth of the slow movement was given great tenderness; the pulverizing finale was simply volcanic, based on pile-driving left-hand hammers in the bass that must have shaken the foundations of the stage. One's stomach was clenched when she finished.

The program's second half inevitably eased up a bit. The Schumann Piano Quintet bore the Argerich stamp of speed and concentration, and although she tried not to, she still dominated her string partners simply by virtue of temperament, sonority, and freedom of phrasing. With Freire in La valse, an exhilarating, slightly mad impetuosity took over. From its subterranean rumblings through its blossoming melodies that flourish, die, and rise again, the two pianists drove the music headlong, like a pair possessed.

A near-riot of stamping and shouting eventually drew two reluctant encores with Freire, the two-piano Valse from Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 and a movement for piano-four-hands from Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye. The audience wouldn't leave until an attendant finally took the piano bench away.


* Parenthetical question is part of the article.

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