Two Cheers, Not Three, for Martha Argerich & Friends

ItalyItaly  Ravel, Schumann, Saint-Saëns:  Martha Argerich and Eduardo Hubert (pianos) and soloists of Santa Cecilia.  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 11.11.2012 (JB)

Whenever I go to a movie or a concert, I expect to be entertained. I may get other –and eventually- more valuable things, such as a presentation of the familiar in a new illuminating light- but if I’m entertained, I reckon I have had my moneys-worth and am as content as a just-fed, blooming baby. My appetite for entertainment is forever undiminished.

Now how about someone offering a programme of the Ravel Mother Goose Suite, the Schumann piano quintet and the Saint-Saëns Carnival of Animals. My appetite goes wild! This is entertainment offered as the main course, so to speak. And no beating about the bush.

Moreover there were some extremely gifted players in this concert. The trouble was they were not all sparking on all plugs. At least, not all the time. And so the entertainment factor was seriously compromised. The entertainment factor can only come across when the players themselves are entertained in their offerings. There was a good deal of on-again, off-again, in this department. Someone hasn’t paid their entertainment tax!

Anyone lucky enough to possess the EMI box of CDs of Martha Argerich and friends, will probably, like me, never have them off their player: the good lady exudes music in the most thrilling way and brings her friends in with her from those live recordings made at her Lucerne Festival, Her communication power is infectious to both colleagues and audience. Was there ever such musical generosity! What they above all put across is the honour they feel at serving us. And thank you ma’am. Long may you reign.

But in the Santa Cecilia concert some bushes did appear, not announced in the programme. And a fair bit of beating about them too, I fear.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was written for his two nieces –four hands at one piano. It doesn’t make great technical demands on the pianists, but they are required to be consummate musicians who have learned how to engage with their special instrument. The Suite has become perhaps better known through Ravel’s later orchestration of it, but in the hands of the right pianists the spectrum of pianistic sound which Ravel unveils, becomes equal or superior to the orchestrated reworking.

The two parts involve equally both players. It is therefore important that they be of equal talent. Here they were not. And no prizes for guessing which was the superior. Eduardo Hubert (a friend of Argerich from childhood in Buenos Aires, and also a pupil of Vincenzo Scaramuzza) would no doubt agree to what I am writing. One could see that they were playing on one instrument though it sounded for all the world like two. Furthermore, Mr Hubert, playing the lower part, had the control of the pedals, thereby restricting more pianistic colour than would have been possible under the Argerich foot.

The Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty is dangerously exposed and was played with little or no pedal at all. The balance of the two players was a trifle unbalanced too. Tom Thumb trotted along quite nicely though Ms Argerich sounded more carefree about the adventure than Mr Hubert. Martha’s prodigious dexterity came usefully into the limelight for the pentatonic Princess of the Pagodas. The exquisite enharmonic changes of Beauty and the Beast somehow escaped the management of Mr Hubert’s right foot. Martha’s glissandos in the finale Fairy Garden were perfection, of course. But Martha sounded like she believed in Fairy Tales while Eduardo sounded as though he hadn’t heard one for many years.

The performance suffered from its unavoidable inequality.

The critic sitting next to me said he was sure that they had come onto the platform and played the Schumann quintet without a single rehearsal. That is certainly what it sounded like. The string quartet were together most of the time. But they were only rarely together with the piano. Had Ms Argerich arrived late and said, Come on boys, we’re on; let’s get on with it. If so, her optimism failed her. With the Lucerne recordings (the quintet comes twice with different players in the EMI box) there had obviously been time to rehearse; for the players to get to know Martha Argerich. And make no mistake: she is a pianist who is not easy to get to know. Her temperament has an improvisational quality to it. Those who know her (Abbado, for instance) worship her for this very quality. But it takes time to get to know it. And not knowing it is near fatal, as we heard.

There were still moments to enjoy in the quintet. I especially warmed to the cellist’s –Gabriele Geminiani- playing of the second subject of the first movement: a beautifully controlled yet understated cantabile –one of the most sensitive deliveries of the evening. Martha’s wonderful fingers were in evidence throughout, but especially in the scherzo and the finale.

The main problem was the pianist going one way with the quartet going another.

Gabriele Geminiani (cello) seems to have made a speciality of understatement, for he produced it again for Saint-Saëns Swan. But while it was so apt in Schumann, in Saint-Saëns it made the poor beast sound underpowered and ill. This caused Ms Argerich to go crackers and forget what she was doing. Was she hearing this cellist for the first time? She audibly panicked. I could have told them that both parts are difficult to put together. I’ve played both, though a very long time ago. The calm, rippling waters of the lake which Saint-Saëns thoughtfully provides in the piano, were hit by a tsunami. Ms Argerich sat there looking like the forlorn Lady of Shallot, waiting for the next swan.

She plays the Schumann piano concerto next weekend. I hope I’ll have better things to report.

Jack Buckley