fri 12/07/2024

Prom 34: Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim review - erratic star, sleek ensemble | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 34: Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim review - erratic star, sleek ensemble

Prom 34: Argerich, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim review - erratic star, sleek ensemble

Uncollegial virtuosity in Tchaikovsky, sophistication in Schubert and Lutosławski

Martha Argerich and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim in Tchaikovsky's First Piano ConcertoAll images by Chris Christodoulou

Perhaps those who came for the Argerich touch and left at the interval of this instant-sellout Prom were satisfied. After all, the legendary Argentinian pianist gave us some vintage minutes of her silk-spinning mercurialism.

Yet it was in the midst of a performance that wasn't exactly an ideal concerto partnership with long-term colleague Daniel Barenboim and the young players of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who deserved better from her. Had the pianomanes stayed, they might have discovered that Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra is a scintillating masterpiece, though its colossal last movement can be so much more.

Kudos, as always, to the ongoing WEDO project of Barenboim and the late Edward Said as it brings together Jewish, Muslim and Arab Christian musicians from the Middle East and Spain in its four-year degree programme (the latest group enrolled in 2015). It's always a shame that for security reasons the players can't be named so that one can't give due credit, for instance, to the powerful first oboist. The strings' hallmark fervour duly flamed at the heart of the two movements in Schubert's "Unfinished" Eighth Symphony. They were earthed by Barenboim's care over phrasing and encased with pianissimos encouraged by a master who has always stated that in the Albert Hall, you draw the listener in rather than force the sound out. For a conductor who often tends to the grandiose, Schubert's Andante con moto lilted at a fair speed, though it was a mistake, given this tenderness, to ignore the Allegro moderato's exposition repeat (according to Elisabeth Leonskaja, when any student omitted repeats in the sonatas, Sviatoslav Richter would ask "what? You don't love Schubert's music?") Martha Argerich at the PromsAfter the total "we're in it together"ness of Nicola Benedetti, Mark Wigglesworth and the NYO in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto earlier this Proms season, it was sometimes dismaying to see Martha Argerich (pictured above) ploughing her own furrow in the First Piano Concerto. Those massive chords as the big tune unfurls near the beginning might have been a warning: much too loud (at least from where I was sitting) for the string melody they are there merely to support; in any case, we now know that Tchaikovsky's original idea for the piano was gentler. Argerich wasn't going to adopt that, though many pianists do. She had her own idea about the tempo for lyrical respite - faster than Barenboim's and the orchestra's - and only let her magic truly work when the theme emerged around an exquisite trill on piano only.

Vintage Argerich were the moments of flyaway fantasy here and at the scherzoid heart of the Andantino semplice, the clear articulation of the finale's dance theme; but the ferocious double octaves would test the strength of any 78-year-old, robust though Argerich undoubtedly is; I have no problem with the occasional wrong note, but did she have to charge at them with so much sustaining pedal to cover up? And could she not have been more generous to her orchestra? I thought she was about to do so in her last bow, but the gesture to the leader was only to make sure they followed her off, preventing the audience from further demanding an encore.

Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra brought teamwork back to the spotlight - a far-back one, incidentally, as Barenboim had clearly learned from the venue to make sure his strings were closer to the brass and wind on the steps behind, leaving a space on the platform in front of them as if for a rerun of the physical drama of his Proms Ring. Evenness in the Intrada met with the eastern European snap of the bracing first theme; the Mendelssohn-in-the-20th-century fairy world of the central night caprice was duly scintillating. WEDO/Barenboim Prom 2019The player at the upright piano - why was he there throughout the first half, I kept wondering? - flecked the earlier of the Passacaglia variations on a nursery theme with brilliant precision; there was fascination as ever in the ominous clustering around the simple song, with not only the urgent brass writing but also the chains of thirds evoking Britten as the earlier movements had fleetingly anticipated Midsummer Marriage Tippett (composed at the same time; Lutosławski would not have known it).

Only in the later stages of the final fresco did playing flag a bit; to sustain its grandeur, the third movement ultimately needs extrovert daring. It wilted, too, in the NYO's Proms performance five years ago under Edward Gardner; the tautest, most rigorous hold is needed here. Yet the players certainly got the full measure of the magic which permeates the score, as it does Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra; neither work is just a showcase. We had more firepower in the encore, Beethoven's Egmont Overture, better in grim determination than in the final victory tour, which just missed true exhilaration by a hair's breadth.


The performance was one of intense artistry and beauty - Argerich plays with a panache and a vibrancy, yet with an astounding understanding of melody and touch like no other pianist . This was demonstrated in the piano concerto. This was not an arrogant performance riddled with excessive pedal and wrong notes but a performance that demonstrated the vast variety of tone that Argerich can achieve, not to mention the musicality and talent of Barenboim and his inspirational orchestra. (Also, many left at the interval as they needed to be at work the following day and had a long journey home - it was a disappointment to miss Lutoslawski's concerto for orchestra.)

Yours is a very fair and accurate review David. I find myself wondering if the authors of the fawning four and five star reviews appearing today were actually witnessing the same performance as you and I. I am a huge admirer of Martha Argerich and have seen her perform many times in recent years, excellent on every occasion. But last night I shared your dismay at witnessing Martha “ploughing her own furrow” as you put it. I certainly didn’t hear the “conductor, soloist and orchestra – unified in their overall concept and in the details” or “intimate dialogue with orchestral colleagues – to be treasured” described by other reviewers. One critic did observe “Barenboim and the orchestra scrambling to keep up”. I think it would be fairer to say that Barenboim held things together admirably in the face of the somewhat relentless furrow ploughing. Martha didn’t seem entirely comfortable throughout and I felt that she was aware that the performance might not have been one of her best. Though always gracious in acknowledging applause it is fairly well known that she is less than comfortable with a rapturous reception when she feels that she hasn’t played to her own exacting standards. I seem to recall a sequence in her daughter, Stéphanie’s excellent documentary film, ‘Bloody Daughter’ that touches upon this. I suspect that this is the reason Martha led the orchestra off stage after her final bows rather than playing one of her customary encores. I must temper the above comments by making it clear that I am not saying that it was a bad performance, there was much to enjoy and a good few flashes of brilliance. Virtuosity indeed, but as you succinctly put it, uncollegial virtuosity. It simply wasn’t quite the “immaculate and mesmerising” coming together of soloist, conductor and orchestra described elsewhere. The Lutoslawski was thrilling.

There were moments of exceptional quality (as would be expected) in Argerich's performance. I don't believe Argerich ploughed her own furrow especially; listen to her performance of Rachmaninov's 3rd with Chailly - I believe she plays with her own agenda here, but not so with this performance. Anyhow, I don't believe it to be catastrophic in a concerto to play alongside the orchestra as apposed to playing with it. Not ideal, but not catastrophic. Undoubtedly, Argerich's best recording of this concerto (the best there is of this concerto) was with Abbado - for me, as is always the case with Argerich's best recordings, this is perfection.

I don't think we disagree, then. Argerich and Abbado were always the dream duo in concertos. It's just that when you've encountered the ideal in terms of live concerto work - as I have, on several occasions in the last month (I'd argue that Shaham and Nézet-Séguin in the recent Prom Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto achieved it as well as Benedetti with NYO/WIgglesworth and Martin James Bartlett in Bach with Southrepps Strings/Parry) anything less seems to rob the music of something. Even though there are still passages Argerich can play like no-one else.

Indeed - Argerich and Abbado's concerto recordings will never be surpassed. I considered the performance to be one of a very high quality, and I adore Argerich's playing. I agree this wasn't her finest performance, but I'm glad that the article mentioned passages like the trill - the variety of tone she can achieve even in one passage is stunning. Listen to the way, in this concerto, she works the melody in the first and second movements. (This is surely one Argerich's most impressive qualities - listen to her recordings of Chopin's scherzo n.2 - the zest with which she works melody. I would argue that her recording of Liszt's sonata is the finest - the first theme is played clearly and yet artistically). Argerich's playing wasn't as intimate with the orchestra as it has been in the past, but I still consider this to be a much better performance than many. I was very disappointed to miss the Lutoslawski. Thank you.

I'm sure you're right about how she felt - we shouldn't second-guess, but the leading off of the players was a clear indication, I think, since I can't remember a time when she hasn't given an encore, whether with Barenboim at the keyboard or by herself (that unforgettable Scarlatti after the Prom Prokofiev Third Concerto - one of the most flawless slices of style I've ever heard). I like to think one usually senses discomfort in an artist when there's undue pressing forward, though she has never been one to linger. Anyway, thank you for so eloquently expounding. Clearly we both love and respect La Argerich, and wish her nothing but well (I half expected someone to say, 'how dare you attack a 78-year-old woman in that way?')

I also wondered why the WEDO pianist was on stage for the first half, then it occurred to me: he's a young pianist - given the choice of sitting in the green room or being on stage to watch Martha Argerich playing at close quarters, why wouldn't he want to be there?

He was also there during the Schubert but maybe he wanted to hear that too. Odd that I didn't think of your reason. Plausible, but unique in my experience. Certain soloists like Alban Gerhardt often like to join the orchestra in the second half of the concert, but that's different.

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