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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795) [35:15] Piano Concerto No. 2
in B flat major, Op. 19 (c.1788-98) [30:02]
Martha Argerich (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, London, 1985.
Cadenzas by Beethoven. ELOQUENCE 482 8145 [65:24]
From Giuseppe Sinopoli’s orchestral introduction to the first Piano Concerto it’s clear that the lyrical elements will emerge brightly and the bold majestically. You can appreciate equally the spacious brass fanfares and demure second theme (tr. 1, 1:20). The third theme, a woodwind march (2:21) is light and buoyant. The piano is closely recorded, strings nearby, wind set back a little, but all the orchestration is clearly detailed. The piano’s entry with the fourth theme (2:54), only heard here, is smooth but Martha Argerich soon livens up and, when mocking the first theme’s opening motif by adding appoggiaturas, is cheekily jocular. By contrast, her completion of the second theme, only part introduced by the orchestra, is quiet yet assured. There’s beautiful phrasing of rising and falling notes as the piano ruminates in the development. Argerich plays Beethoven’s short cadenza, lasting just a minute is a superb précis of the movement as well as showpiece. A thunderous recall of the opening motif melts into an affectionate wisp of the second theme, jolly entrance of the third theme then transformed by modulation before a stomping first theme opening motif returns, all festooned with the confetti of semiquaver runs, perfectly setting up Sinopoli's triumphant coda.
I compared Argerich's 1983 live recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa (BR Klassik 900701). This is a fresh and direct, with no frills. Ozawa begins in friendly, smiling fashion, then becomes more imposing but never grand. His second theme is of a retiring nature but courteous, his third has a somewhat stiff protocol. Argerich’s piano theme is clearly articulated but this too is rather formal, even the scrunchy appoggiaturas in her later treatment of the first theme’s opening motif won’t raise a smile. However, her completion of the second theme does have a quiet but firm sense of fulfilment. Her playing generally has a robust, steely intensity which works particularly well to create a purposeful and fluent, concentrated development, but her phrasing doesn’t have the poise she shows in 1985. Beethoven’s short cadenza is given more hyperactive dazzle in 1983, the semiquaver confetti more brilliant, but the second and third themes less distinctively coloured.
To review the slow movement I need to clarify its dramatization as I see it. The principal theme, of sorrowing love, is heard straightaway as a piano solo. The orchestra responds with a subsidiary theme which begins sympathetically then reprimands, 'Pull yourself together.' The love theme returns on the clarinet, Juliet to the piano’s Romeo. The piano then provides a very free variation of, you could say a musing on, the love theme (tr. 2, 1:50); the orchestra puts up an unyielding barrier. There follows another piano ‘variation’ (2:58), now with support from the clarinet, and another orchestral protest. There is a sadder but more fervently presented love theme (4:24). Followed by the same orchestral rebuke. The piano strengthens the love theme by a closing summation (7:08). The orchestra is silenced by the clarinet taking up the consolatory opening of its theme. The piano responds with the rebuke, soon defusing it. The orchestra’s role is now transformed to positive acceptance and piano and clarinet can echo one another in their ardour. With all this in mind, how do Argerich and Sinopoli play it? Argerich begins cautiously, as if just beginning to articulate her feelings. The Largo marking is emphasised, but this makes everything hang in the air and the ornamentation seem impersonal, calculated. Sinopoli’s orchestral response emphatically slaps her down. The clarinet’s love theme is respectful, rather cowed. From the piano’s musings onward, articulation becomes more flowing, the return of the love theme with delicate ornamentation is beautifully crafted and now intrinsic to the theme’s essence. By their exquisite close both piano and clarinet are mellifluous and deeply expressive. The orchestra remains explosive even in its congratulations.
Timing at 10:57 in comparison with 12:05 in 1985, Argerich's 1983 account is more flowing from the start, so the opening piano theme introduces concerned thought of a more spontaneous nature. Ozawa’s orchestral response is firm but fair. The clarinet is suitably prominent in stating its affinity with the piano. The piano’s response is then more intimate, rhapsodic, also heartfelt and with a touch of fragility. In the return of the love theme, while Argerich’s playing is less poised than in the 1985 recording, here too the ornamentation is made part of its essence. The piano’s strengthening of the love theme by closing summation is more stirringly projected than in 1985 and, with the clarinet prominent too, you experience the moving duet of a committed pairing.
The finale gets a buoyant, yet also scrupulously rounded, presentation of the rondo theme by Argerich from the start in 1985 while the orchestra repeat’s offbeat cross rhythms are played with gusto, but become stylishly darting come the first episode. For her part, in the first episode (from tr. 3, 1:16) Argerich equally revels in a heavy left hand contrast to a coyly marked out right hand melody. The second episode (2:43) is reined in a little, which makes it easier to meld later into a more airy manner with the woodwind, with which the piano’s interplay is delightfully done. The high registration of the piano’s third presentation of the rondo theme is deliciously secretive, its fourth presentation has an intimate glee, while its final, mini presentation is like a dainty musical box before Sinopoli’s tremendous closing surge. He has earlier made a stunning sprint to announce an equally dazzling cadenza from Argerich, all 15 seconds of it. The 1983 finale is a little faster, 8:19 against 8:55, yet sounds more so in its youthful joie de vivre. The orchestra’s cross rhythms are lighter but still clear. In the first episode Argerich’s left hand is even heavier but her right hand melody less suave. The second episode is more hustling, the woodwind not able to provide relief from this helter-skelter journey. In this context Argeric’s pianism and cadenza are more breathtaking but there’s less finesse than in 1985 in her contrasted quieter later rondo themes.
Sinopoli’s introduction to the second Piano Concerto is bright but, at the same time, the opening theme is quite imposing and incisive, peppered with sforzandi. The tension is shaken off by the lyrical second theme (tr. 4, 1:19), though even this is darkly nonchalant. Argerich enters with a new theme, carefree and playful, then nods at the orchestra’s opening theme only sportively, to trickle away from it. The fourth theme (3:46) is the first the piano really takes up but soon prefers to drift into D flat major, a magical change of atmosphere (4:24). Next comes a glittering parade of Argerich’s virtuosity to which Sinopoli makes a swashbuckling response, effectively a fifth theme. The development sees Argerich treating the first theme rhapsodically. Then, like a conjurer, she performs various tricks with motifs offered by the orchestra. The cadenza takes this process further. It is striking, adventurous, over the top, too advanced to live comfortably with the rest, but written by Beethoven about 1809. Argerich’s response is of an abrasive, brittle brilliance.
For comparison I take Argerich's 2000 live recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon E477 5026). Their first movement is faster, 13:18 against Argerich/Sinopoli's 14:09, but enough to make the whole performance progress more compellingly as a panoramic sweep. Because a chamber orchestra is used, the overall tone is less weighty. Abbado’s ff passages are rather understated, where Sinopoli gives them a Brucknerian intensity. His sforzandi are stimuli where Sinopoli's are stabs. Abbado's introduction is hearty and yet also gracious, his strings more glinting, the second theme with a more smiling nature. Argerich responds accordingly and throughout the articulation is lighter and more shimmering than in 1985, so the atmosphere is happier and the feeling of discourse between soloist and orchestra stronger. To take one example, the liveliness and humour with which the oboe echoes the piano where in 1985 (9:35) we get clear and clean but comparatively cool precision. In 2000 the whole is genially animated. Where the cadenza’s bold treatment of the opening theme in 1985 sounds a severe, rigorous exercise, in 2000 Argerich conveys a spontaneity of interest, in the moment, in how it might progress.
Sinopoli’s slow movement orchestral introduction is warmly expressive but soon troubled and then protesting. Argerich’s piano defuses this angst by extending it into a highly ornamented aria. The orchestra interjects with phrases which are brief yet, from Sinopoli, so full of heart that they seem to come from a limitless expanse. Is this overdone? Beethoven’s dynamics are faithfully observed. It's just that a full orchestra arguably over-magnifies them. Yet I do think this works in this particular movement. You get the powerful feeling that piano and orchestra need each other to reach composure. The emotive rather than melodic character of the movement is telling. Its most memorable moments, for me, are the falling petal-like phrases of piano recitative which are the key feature of a cadenza (from tr. 4, 7:41), unusually interspersed with orchestral reminiscences of the opening theme. Argerich brings pathos which is a combination of intimacy and tearful desolation. The 2000 slow movement is a less strict Adagio than 1985: timing at 8:50, just over a minute faster. Its overall mood is pastoral and relaxed, the piano’s aria enjoyed for itself rather than as resilient mollifying, the orchestral interjections smilingly supportive, no more than that, while the piano skips happily along. This is consistent with its frothy, though quiet accompaniment when the orchestra returns to the opening theme, a passage of even gentler cushioning in Argerich’s 1985 account (4:05). In 2000 a roseate treatment of the cadenza, while beautifully tender, misses the pathos of 1985.
The rondo finale will always be bouncy because of the predominance of syncopated rhythms in the rondo theme and, still more, the gypsy like third episode (tr. 6, 2:15). These are delivered with breathtaking virtuosity by Argerich and Sinopoli; but more might have been made of the soft contrasts of the piano's semiquaver runs, which is better achieved by Argerich's lighter touch in her phrasing in 2000, complemented by the heartier, yet nevertheless contained quality of Abbado's orchestral contributions. Argerich and Sinopoli get more spring in the second episode (0:52) owing to their emphatic sforzandi at the end of its first and third phrases; but Argerich finds more comedy in lighter treatment in 2000 of the later, appoggiatura packed passage (1:18 in 1985). Humour in 1985 is of the more boisterous kind, such as the trenchancy of the right and left hand interplay in the piano's delivery of the third episode, especially at the third time of hearing.
To sum up, at their best Argerich and Sinopoli are superb, but not all is plain sailing and comparisons don't provide an overall firm recommendation.