December 19, 2014
Argerich, Barenboim play grand tour de force
For the Herald
The Colón seemed to burst at the seams for the second concert by leading pianists
A long year after Berlin had the privilege of hearing Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim playing together, they produced musical magic at the Colón on Wednesday. Their technique seemed ageless, fresh and perfect, with no trace of the passing of years. And their charisma — especially hers — conquered an enormous audience, with about 150 people onstage and lots of music lovers allowed to remain standing — something forbidden throughout the last decade. The Colón seemed about to burst at the seams, and certainly many hundreds were frustrated in their search for tickets.
The great hall was filled with anticipation, as the concertgoers arrived to witness the main event of the year. And the performance fully demonstrated the joy of communicating music, so that 3,000 people seemed to be feeling the same in one emotion. That’s what great concertizing is about.
The pianos were placed side by side, not opposed as is traditional in two-piano music. But it made sense, since we heard music either for two pianos or four-hand. In pianists’ jargon, the artist who plays Primo concerns himself with high-lying music, while Secondo deals with the lower section of the instrument. For some reason, Barenboim played Primo in the two four-hand scores, and first piano in two-piano music.
The quality of the instruments may have something to do with this decision: Martha played the older, warmer piano, and Daniel the brighter, more metallic one. But it did have the consequence of relegating Martha’s sound, thus producing some degree of imbalance.
They started with Mozart’s sole Sonata for two pianos (he has several for four-hand), K. 448, a sunny score with a beautiful slow movement, played with great sensitivity. In the fast ones Daniel was brilliant but slightly too emphatic, compared with Martha’s delicacy of touch.
Then came the composer most identified with four-hand music, Franz Schubert: the lovely Variations on an original theme Op.35, D.813. The fluid interchange of both artists was essential in transmitting the work’s charm and imagination.
After the interval, a mighty challenge: the four-hand version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. For reasons of physical comfort, I suppose, the artists used two pianos: Daniel as Primo in one and Martha as Secondo in the other. It seems that the four-hand version pre-dates the orchestration and that the composer often played it. Although I kept hearing in my mind his marvellous orchestral colourings, this four-hand monochromatic version stresses even further the rhythmic revolution that the Rite produced.
Their bodies transformed into vehicles of blunt rhythm, the artists offered an amazing tour de force of extraordinary accuracy and punch and the whole theatre vibrated with them. This was the sort of memorable experience that you keep hearing in your inner self long after it occurred.
And then the generous encores, which amounted to a Third Part. The first choice was quite a surprise: two cellists and a horn player from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra came onstage, and Barenboim announced the original version of Schumann’s Andante with variations, for the two pianos were enriched by the added timbres. The piece, much longer than the average encore, is well worth knowing for its melodic beauty and the well-contrasted variations, and here Martha played first piano in an admirable interpretation (she recorded the piece back in 1994).
A scintillating fragment (the Waltz) from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No 2 for two pianos had Martha again in first piano in a coruscating friendly duel with Daniel. Then, the easy charm of Guastavino’s Bailecito, and finally, the humorous first piece from that favourite of the two-piano repertoire, Milhaud’s Scaramouche, redolent of Brazilian rhythms and inflexions. The players weren’t quite as idiomatic as the Labèque sisters, but still it was very enjoyable.
The party was over and a satisfied crowd slowly left the theatre. The artists, especially Martha, seemed happy and relaxed; she was back at her dear Colón in full glory. And Daniel always took her by the hand and seemed to protect her.
Their Berlin recital with the same programme was recorded; make sure you don’t miss it.