Magnificent Musicianship from Argerich and Barenboim at the Proms


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 43 – Widmann, Liszt, and Wagner: Martha Argerich (piano), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2016. (MB)

Prom 43_CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_4
Martha Argerich performs with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (c) Chris Christodoulou

WidmannCon brio (revised version)

Liszt – Piano Concerto no.1 in E-flat major

Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture; Götterdämmerung: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act One

For once, my precautions paid off. Having – extravagantly, insanely, whatever you wish to call it – booked to hear this concert both in Salzburg and at the Proms, I managed to hear Martha Argerich once. Having cancelled the previous week’s concert, Martha Argerich no longer had to call upon the services of Daniel Barenboim as substitute pianist. Barenboim had given, under the circumstances, a fine account of Mozart’s final piano concerto, but this performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto was in another league. And I think that, if comparisons must be drawn – I have not looked again at my earlier review before writing this – the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was on even better form in the Wagner extracts too.

I relished the opportunity to hear Jörg Widmann’s Con brio for a second time in such close succession. Its performance certainly sounded every bit as incisive as in Salzburg, the quality of ‘cinematic cuts’, if anything, still more apparent. Barenboim played new music, as his wont, as repertoire music, and it benefited greatly from the lack of ghettoisation. Once again, the West-Eastern Divan’s percussionist proved mesmerising. We heard here a post-expresisonist soundscape, on which Beethovenian fragments – not quite ruins – were eerily and yet wittily displayed, or viewed, even set in motion. Beethoven seemed still more expertly misremembered; we think we recognise what we hear, but we do not actually. Interestingly, with Liszt to come, the piece and its progress seemed more akin to a symphonic poem than an overture.

The Liszt Concerto’s orchestral opening was forthright, Argerich’s piano response quite simply defying any reasonable – and perhaps unreasonable – expectations. I was quite taken aback, as I have been before when hearing her play a piano concerto, by the way she manages to cut through an orchestra; I really do not know how she does it, especially with an acoustic such as the Royal Albert Hall’s. There were depth and clarity to rival Sviatoslav Richter on his legendary recording with the LSO and Kyrill Kondrashin. And how she then yielded, much as one might imagine Liszt having done so himself. (Just imagine that world premiere, with Berlioz conducting Liszt’s own orchestra in Weimar!) Barenboim supplied, supported motivic integrity to remind us how rightful an heir to Beethoven Liszt is, and there was Wagnerian flexibility from both conductor and soloist. We were reminded – not that any Lisztian would ever forget – how much of his orchestral writing is chamber music too, not least by the superlative clarinet solo against Argerich’s ever-sensitive piano. The slow movement brought nobility and depth – again echoes of Beethoven – from the opening string utterances onwards. (I could not help but think there of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto.) Argerich’s piano soliloquising might have come from one of Liszt’s own solo works; the example of the Années de pèlerinage loomed large, and there were even hints of the Piano Sonata. The triangle-led transition brought us scherzo skittishness from all concerned, the orchestra notably sardonic, the piano increasingly moving towards something more devilish, Totentanz-like. The depth of Liszt’s musical argument was never in doubt as we moved into the finale, brimming full of musico-theatrical excitement, all courtesy of the composer’s transformative genius.

As an encore, we were treated to an intimate duet performance of Schubert’s A major Rondo, D.951. This is not public music; instead, we felt as if we were eavesdropping on some exalted music-making en famille. The length of the piece – which can readily seem repetitive to the listener, as opposed to the performer – was on this occasion, in Schumann’s all-too-oft-repeated description, ‘heavenly’ indeed. And Barenboim had practised.

It was, then, again, to Wagner, Liszt’s musical comrade-in-arms, that we moved for the second half. I recalled the woodiness of the opening wind from the earlier performance of the Tannhäuser Overture. Strings replied, initially sounding, as if continuing from Liszt’s example, like an enlarged chamber group, gradually swelling to become fully, undoubtedly orchestral. Barenboim’s shaping of this and the subsequent pieces was as expert as ever; he knew exactly how to provide impetus, how to communicate Wagner’s melos. One could, in this context, especially in the music of Venus, hear the seductive languor that so attracted Liszt. The frustrations of attempted climax were frankly sexual; how could they not be? The final peroration glowed and, prefiguring Götterdämmerung, burned.

Dawn from that opera’s Prologue (or rather the period just before Dawn) had lugubrious mystery, which yet remained admirably clear. Muddiness is the last thing this music requires, as Barenboim’s revered Boulez would always have argued – and, more to the point, shown us. There was glorious string tone in the approach to the climax, responded to just as gloriously by the WEDO brass. An excellent horn solo (taken from the organ) led us to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. It was graceful and monumental, full of incident, yet sure of purpose. Gibichung malevolence began to draw us in, before another brutal close to the first act. The Funeral March’s opening sounded still darker, still graver than before, prior to the memorial grandeur that so impressed Thomas Mann, the Volsung genealogy leading us through ‘an overwhelming celebration of memory and mind, from ‘the longing questions of the boy [Siegfried] about his mother’ to ‘earth-shakings and thunderings, with the body borne high on its bier’. In Barenboim’s hands, the music developed from what had gone before, and continued to develop, before once again descending into potentially nihilistic darkness.

Finally, at least so far as the published programme was concerned, we heard the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. I think it may have been taken, initially, at a brisker tempo than in Salzburg; it certainly felt that way. At any rate, it relaxed considerably, when appropriate, without damage to an underlying pulse. Tempo variation was, as Wagner demanded, never arbitrary, always meaningful. And here it was often considerable, Barenboim at his most Furtwänglerian. There was nevertheless Mendelssohnian lightness – what delightful woodwind playing! – to be heard in the development, and a general ease to the despatch of the composer’s virtuosic, anything-but-textbook counterpoint. The encores were as in Salzburg; first a darkly noble, later blossoming, Prelude to Act III of the same opera, then a swashbuckling Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with a strikingly courtly central section. Magnificent!

Mark Berry

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