Making magic at the Colón
For the Herald
In the first of three concerts in BA, the classical masters promised and delivered
And the long-awaited day finally came: on Sunday, Marth Argerich joined Daniel Barenboim onstage for the first time in their fantastic careers in the city where they made their débuts. Now in their early seventies, they haven’t lost their exalted qualities: Argerich remains a unique phenomenon in the world of female pianists, and there’s no other musician than Daniel Barenboim at his pinnacle both as a pianist and a conductor. And both are Argentine. At least in musical interpretation, the country has produced undisputedly immense talent.
The initial concert before a huge crowd — with the most coveted tickets of the year — promised high quality and delivered it.
Argerich’s trajectory is a strange one: she is the only great pianist who decided long ago to play solely concerti with orchestra or chamber music with friends; I was fortunate enough to hear her in solo recitals before she made this strange decision for psychological reasons: she needs to feel that she makes music with fellow artists.
She may play a solo piece as an encore but that’s as far as she goes. Even with this singular restriction, her name attracts multitudes all over the world for her uncanny blend of technical perfection and intense, personal interpretation.
As for Barenboim, he is probably the most important figure in purely musical terms both as a pianist and a conductor, and he has also been for decades an outspoken leader for peace; he even created an ensemble that has become the best symbol: the West Eastern Divan Orchestra includes Israelis and Palestinians, and in recent years, also Spanish players, for the organization is supported by the Junta of Andalucia. What better example of harmony between people who unfortunately have been at war for decades?
More than a year ago, something very special happened in Berlin. Although Argerich and Barenboim had held, for decades, deep respect for one another, they had enjoyed separate careers; but somehow they met, and admiration turned into friendship and willingness to collaborate artistically.
They agreed on a scheme of an orchestral concert in which she would play with the Divan Orchestra Beethoven’s First Concerto, and then they would be partners in two pianos and/or in piano four hands.
The concerts were a howling success and had repercussions at the Colón; Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi saw the opportunity for what would surely be the hit of the year, and with the agreement of the artists, it became a reality.
Both musicians were child prodigies; Martha (born 1941) played concerti publicly in 1949 and by 1952 she made her debut at the Colón; Daniel (born 1942) played in public the same year of Martha’s debut. Yes, they are here together 65 years later.
Barenboim began to conduct in 1967 and has led the Orchestre de Paris, the Chicago Symphony, since 1992 the Berlin Deutsche Staatsoper and since 2011 he has been the Musical Director of Milan’s La Scala.
Both were absent from Buenos Aires for decades, but Martha came back for the Argerich Festivals in 1999-2005; unfortunately, she was a victim of labour conflicts and badly mistreated. As a result, she didn’t return to BA, although last year she played in Rosario and Paraná.
With Barenboim the problem was of a different sort; as his family went to Israel when he was a boy, he didn’t want to come to Argentina to comply with military service; if he had visited the country, he could have been arrested, but eventually that threat was waived and he appeared with the Orchestre de Paris in 1980 for the Mozarteum.
It was the first of a whole series of visits as pianist or conductor of the Chicago Symphony, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Scala Orchestra and the West-Eastern Divan.
Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan with Edward Said in 1999 and eventually brought it to BA. The Orchestra is young, fresh and fully professional, a pleasure to hear, though without that special sound of the truly great orchestras.
Barenboim’s energy is colossal and he has committed himself to the Colón for three consecutive years of activities called “Music and Reflexion.” In less than two weeks this year he will conduct three orchestral concerts and four performances of a reduced unstaged Wagner (Tristan and Isolde), plus a two-piano recital with Argerich and a strange concoction: members of his orchestra and Les Luthiers in Stravinsky and Saint-Saëns. And a dialogue between Felipe González and the musician (that’s the “reflexion” aspect).
The initial concert before a huge crowd — the most coveted tickets of the year — promised high quality and delivered it. After a nice traversal of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven’s First Concerto had one of its best interpretations in the Colón’s history.
Argerich’s charisma remains unblemished, her wonderful precision coupled with sensitive phrasing and beautiful timbre, and the orchestra accompanied with care and taste. She played a welcome encore: Träumeswirren (Unquiet Dreams), the virtuoso No 8 of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces.
The second part was fully coherent: Ravel’s Spain-related scores. Spanish Rhapsody, Morning Song of the Jester, Pavane for a Dead Princess and Bolero. All of it played transparently and beautifully, with Barenboim’s ear acutely reflecting the composer’s evocative atmospheres.
The encores: as he did with the Orchestre de Paris, the four Preludes from Bizet’s Carmen. And then, to finish, the conductor’s affinity with our tango: El firulete, in a fine arrangement for winds by José Carli (years ago Barenboim had conducted the Buenos Aires Philharmonic in an open-air concert of symphonic tangos).
A great occasion indeed.