The March 25, 2000 Carnegie Hall Recital

Report by William Hsieh

(a vivid account by the former Reviewer for the Stanford Daily,
who flew to the recital from the Caribbean)

If God ever condescends to hear human prayers, he surely heeded my most earnest musical wish, for Martha Argerich, against all odds of cancellation, honored her first Carnegie Hall solo recital since 1981.

To be exact, it was only a semi-solo recital, as she shared the stage with the Juilliard String Quartet and Nelson Freire in the second half. Doesn't matter. Eager fans had snatched up tickets as fast as they could. An hour before the recital, many a hapless soul jammed the hall entrance hoping for miracle return tickets. Any which way you turned, desperate fans were outright flashing $20, $50 and even $100 dollar bills in the air as if to buy the hottest Internet IPO's. Alas, with the rarest exceptions, the door to a historical milestone in modern pianism was cruelly closed on them.

Once inside, the air was fast becoming unsettling as the hour rolled past 8pm. Even at this ultimate juncture, the audience was still beset by the most unthinkable yet painfully plausible possibility of a no-show. Then lo and behold, out stepped the smiling Martha as the audience erupted into rounds of applause and cheers of bravos. Argerich had to acknowledge the over-enthused audience with half a dozen smiling nods from the piano bench before sounding the first note. Without warning, she launched into the C minor chords of Bach's Second Partita. The hall instantly turned quiet.

The Sinfonia, which assumed a quasi-religious air of solemnity in the opening page, gave way to a wonderful hush in the Andante section, which soon resolved into a spirited sprint of fugal passages. The Allemande was velvet smooth, the sound so gossamer light it seemed to evaporate into the night air.

Her Courante was quirky, almost improvisational in the way she swayed the phrasing, creating intriguing blends of harmonies that gave the illusion that one was hearing a freshly minted Bach at the spur of the moment.

Her touch in the Rondeaux was at once mischievously bouncy and elegantly balanced. The Capricio finale was full of her usual rhythmic pungency and steely resolve, though her penchant for speeding up was in clear view. Despite the fast tempo, layers of counterpoint were clearly delineated by her chiseled voicing. One by one, each voice paraded with a distinctive character. Her unique blend of athleticism and well-sculpted fugal lines brought out an irresistible sense of joie de vivre, driving the Partita to a compelling end.

Once again Argerich had to tame outbursts of audience cheers before settling into Chopin's Barcarolle. Her opening bass chord had a rich resonance that provided an engaging backdrop to the undulating left-hand accompaniment. The right-hand melody, however, sounded somewhat brittle and disjointed. The mood was more of a disorientated agitation than gentle sway. The coda, where she practically doubled the tempo dashing to the finish, roared with chaotic excitement. Still, one was left wondering where she was heading. Non-swimmers are perhaps best advised not to board her musical gondola.

But one only had to hear the ensuing Scherzo No. 3 to dispel all doubts of who was in charge. The ominous rumble in the lower register paved way to torrential octave runs. Her legendary octaves thundered, replete with their former splendor intact, generating billows of awe-inspiring sonic boom. The upper-register filigrees, marked leggierissimo, were cascades of gold dust, made to glimmer all the more by some palpable nervousness. Most remarkable was the build-up of the coda, where Chopin's con fuoco marking was greeted with a whirlwind of fire and brimstone. The few wrong notes didn't seem to faze her as she brought the Scherzo to a heaven-storming end. For a cancer patient fast approaching 60, Argerich's fingers surely are still dipping in the fountain of youth.

By far the most keenly anticipated piece was the Prokofiev 7th Sonata, a war horse perfectly suited to Argerich's unique temperament. Right from the beginning triplets, her playing was marked by high voltage and suffocating tension. Argerich answered Prokofiev's inquieto marking far above and beyond the duty call, letting different harmonies collide and wiping out bar lines altogether in her dangerously volatile tempi. Her passion at times bordered on savagely beastial, propelled by relentless forward momentum. Through deft maneuver of dynamics in the passagework, Argerich conjured terror of the most bone-chilling degree. Fragments of the opening theme echoed like demonic snickers. The Andantino section contrasted nicely with the outer sections and emerged like the eye of the hurricane, offering only transient relief. The sudden drop in musical temperature induced an instant chill. The top notes rang quietly but icily and the whole section oozed a misty glow of twilight beauty.

Argerich proved to be Siren supreme, luring listeners into near hypnosis too deep to escape before plunging them back into an abyss of terror. Few pianists could ever hope to match her mercurial shifts of temperament, producing searing heat one minute and imparting freezing chills the next. This was Prokofiev playing at its most unsettling, deeply disturbing yet morbidly captivating.

The Andante Caloroso was taken at a brisker pace than usual, but fit well with her conception of the outer movements. The few precious moments of respite produced pianissimo passages of haunting beauty, yet always tinged with an eerie sense of unease.

    The un poco agitato section shot off quietly like meteorite showers against chilly night sky, her tone soft but glazed with metallic luster. Immediately afterwards, the chordal syncopations tolled like death chimes from afar, evoking lurid images of war and destruction. Argerich highlighted Prokofiev's morbid ingenuity, rivaled perhaps only by Ravel's Gibbet in Gaspard de la Nuit.

Whatever achievement Argerich had laid down in the first two movements seemed a mere precursor for the Olympic heights she was about to scale in the Precipitato finale. Unlike her previous live performances documented on dubious private labels, her Finale this time was devoid of frenzy and unsustainably fast tempo that had previous codas teetering on collapse. Freed of her former anxiety, Argerich exuded pure confidence and resolve, flanked by her colossal virtuosity. The left-hand ostinato motive stood like iron pillars, propping the rest of the piece like an imposing monolith rising skyward. The piquant accents were tossed off by her free-wheeling left thumb. Just about everywhere barrages of heavy chords and octaves blasted off with detonating brilliance.

    Her intriguing blend of solidity and volatility endowed the deluge of notes with a sense of utter inevitability. For a blinding moment, one was convinced this was the way to go. Here Argerich's bravura generated excitement of the most visceral kind, turning the 3-minute movement into spontaneous combustion of nuclear proportion and sending the coda to vertiginous new heights.

After the intermission, Argerich emerged alert but much more at ease to perform Schumann's Piano Quintet with the Juilliard String Quarter. Her head-long plunge in the initial bars pretty much set the tone for the entire piece, where, like it or not, she was to dominate throughout. The Juilliard Quartet was positively galvanized by her presence and gave all they could. Despite its best effort, the quartet was occasionally left by the wayside, struggling to stay afloat on her engulfing sound waves. The cellist in particular was hard-pressed to stay in tune.

One particularly relished the few moments of quiet tenderness, when Argerich's bewitching pianissimo evoked rare intimacy. The ensembleship, though far from perfect, was unfailingly engaging. Propelled by Argerich's relentless forward momentum, the Schumann Quintet somehow turned into a concerto for piano and string quartet.

Taken at neck-breaking tempo, the Scherzo movement became Argerich's fertile playground on which she dazzled and astounded with the rapid-volley octaves and galloping staccatos. In one particular scale passage, she used nothing but her right hand second finger to optimize the articulation. The effect was hair-raising.

She freely whisked in and out of the foreground, tossing off corruscating flurries of accompaniment whenever the quartet had the main theme. Most of the time, however, Argerich roared ferociously while the Quartet struggled on.

The Ravel Valse for Two Pianos offered a refreshing change of mood. For once, the partnership was beyond reproach, with Argerich's every whim and twist duly reciprocated by Nelson Freire at the second piano. In their hands, the Valse became a potent elixir of hallucinatory ecstasy as the duo pianists locked wing in wing in their flights of fancy. The passagework was awash with fleeting hues of shifting colors.

    In the quieter moments, melodic lines glowed warmly, sending off wafting fragrance. The sheer range of tonal palette was so ravishing one wished to bottle them up to take home as souvenirs. One was prompted to wonder if the Valse had ever received a more exultant homage elsewhere. What a fitting way to close the fantastic program !

The encore-hungry audience couldn't have cheered louder. After a dozen rounds of curtain calls, often accompanied by synchronized applause and foot stamping, the duo pianists rendered a breathtaking Valse from Rachmaninoff's Second Suite, spinning endless pirouettes across the keyboards. The palpable sense of unbridled joy conveyed by the insouciant duo was truly enviable.

Another half dozen or so curtain calls were to pass before the duo would regale us with a final encore. Much to our surprise, the duo sat side by side to offer "Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes" from Ravel's "Ma Mère l'Oye" for one piano four hands, with Argerich playing the treble register. Their thirty years plus of friendship found the most expressive medium in this short piece.

    Terse and crisp, the piece imparted irresistible charm and childlike innocence under their fingers. It was a heart-warming sight to observe the team deftly negotiating the limited space, sharing elbow room and shifting hand positions to allow each other's hands to cross freely. The page turner's momentary slip of attention was swiftly redressed by Argerich's helpful pointing, freeing her right index finger to indicate the right spot on the score. The air of intimacy was unmistakable, so much that one almost felt like a fly on the wall watching a private performance in Argerich's living room.

Clearly insatiable, the audience kept clamoring for more, urging the pianists to come out with a half dozen more curtain calls, even after the stage lights had been dimmed twice. No doubt, some had betted on hearing Argerich's solo encores. Fat chance. Finally, as the hour rolled past 11pm, a stagehand had the thankless task of removing the score rack from the Steinway grand, amidst loud boos, before lingering crowds would reluctantly disperse.

The recital as a whole was immensely enjoyable and vastly satisfying. It was a comeback recital in a very literal sense, for Argerich chose the exact Chopin and Prokofiev pieces with which she had made her Carnegie debut recital in 1966. True to form, her wildly fluctuating tempi and occasional over-pedaling were in evidence, which, paradoxically, made the whole experience all the more authentic. For those too busy soaking in Argerich's transcendental pianism, nit-picking seems to be the last agenda on their minds.

Nineteen years was far too long a wait for the adoring public. But for those who held out the hope to the end, the reward couldn't have been sweeter. Judging from the inexhaustible rounds of curtain calls, it seems safe to assume most people went home happy.  Now, if only she would play a full-length recital.  

Well, there IS a God after all. And I might add, a Goddess as well.

- by William Hsieh

Photo Credit: Photo at top is by Takeo Ishimatsu.

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