Martha Argerich's concerts are always planned, but they are never guaranteed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Up close and personal

Poster for the concert outside the Konzerhaus
When news first broke of Martha Argerich’s possible performance of Chopin’s first piano concerto in Vienna a few months ago, there was a good deal of discussion among fans as to whether she would really go ahead with it or if she would bail and/or change to another concerto that she regularly plays. The reason for this was that she had not played the Chopin concerto since 2000, as well as the fact that virtually all concerts with Argerich are just planned, but rarely guaranteed (although it has to be said that she cancels far less concerts than before). The good news is that she did play the work in Vienna last Sunday, on 16 May. 

“Play Gulda Play” was the title of the mini-festival held at the Konzerthaus in Vienna on Sunday, a whole day of concerts dedicated to the late Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda, who would have turned 80 this year, and which was organised by his sons Paul and Rico Gulda. The last concert of the day, entitled “fff-Finale for Friedrich” included an eclectic programme, with Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Gulda’s own Concertino for Players and Singers, ending with the Chopin concerto.
I was able to attend the general rehearsal on the morning of the concert, and the programme was rehearsed in the order of the concert. Paul Gulda played the two works in the first half, which featured the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the fabulous Arnold Schoenberg Choir (undoubtedly one of the finest choirs in Europe), under the direction of Erwin Ortner, who also happens to be the director of the Schoenberg Choir. The Beethoven started rather shakily, with Gulda not being in complete command of the piano, and it was only in the last few pages of the work that it gained some kind of excitement. It certainly wasn’t the best performance of the work I had heard. The Gulda work, which features choir, percussion, orchestra and piano, seemed a hybrid of various styles (with some influence of Gershwin, a bit of Bernstein and a bit of rock, especially in the timpani cadenza - played with aplomb by the young Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger - and in the drum solo near the end. The choir sang not words, but harmonised vowels which I thought was quite genial, and they appeared to be having fun, with some members of the choir swaying to the fast rhythms. Paul Gulda was also in better form for his father’s work.
After the break, Argerich arrived, and although she wasn’t terribly happy about the piano, she seemed relaxed enough and played through the Chopin concerto. The orchestra and conductor had a hard time keeping up with her, and various sections were repeated for better ensemble. Throughout the rehearsal, she was often looking at the ceiling of the Konzerthaus (a stunningly beautiful building built at the beginning of the 20th century, and with wonderful acoustics) as if in a trance. Several members of the choir stayed to listen and she was warmly applauded at the end, and I returned home reassured and excited for the main event.
Argerich in rehearsal with the Wiener KammerOrchester under Erwin Ortner

When I arrived at the hall 20 minutes before the start of the concert, there were a lot of empty seats which I found odd (I had thought that the concert would sell out quickly). But after a 10-minute delay, due to the number of people arriving at the very last minute, the concert finally started. Though there were some interesting moments, Paul Gulda’s performance of the Beethoven Choral Fantasy was technically even less secure than in the rehearsal, with many wrong notes and blurred passagework in the fast sections. The only thing that was grand about his performance was the physical gestures, with lots of grunts and swaying of the arms and body. I have to say, that I had never seen any pianist who used so much pedal! He had his right foot practically glued to the pedal, rarely letting go of it. Luckily the orchestra, choir and vocal soloists saved what could have been a subpar performance. A curious blonde female figure dressed in black, sitting beside Paul Gulda, and described in the programme booklet simply as ‘Anima’ (a creation of Friedrich Gulda), started to walk around the stage during the Beethoven. It was at best interesting, but for me her presence made no sense and proved to be more of a distraction than anything else. The Gulda Concertino was a much happier affair than the Beethoven, save for a slightly false entry by the choir in the second movement (which was met by a deadly look from the conductor). As in the rehearsal, the choir seemed to be enjoying the work, and the percussion solo was a particular highlight.
In the second half, Argerich, dressed in a stylish black two-piece ensemble, appeared to enthusiastic applause and after a few attempts at trying to set the piano chair at the right height, the Chopin started. I had a fantastic seat in the very front of the hall (which, I must add, was graciously given to me by a fellow Argerich fan in Germany. Danke nochmal!), and I was able to observe her hands and pedalwork very well. At her first entry, which was electrifying, I found myself spontaneously jolting out of my seat for a second. And yet I felt there was a feeling of vulnerability in her playing as well. That Argerich can create any sound she wants hardly needs mentioning again, but in this performance - especially in the first movement - I felt that she was somehow not completely convinced about the sound she was making, and that she was really intent on finding not just one colour for a particular phrase or harmony, but rather thousands of colours, even for a single note. That sense of searching and vulnerability added to the pathos in the lyrical passages, and in the first movement there was a sense of longing nostalgia that was always there in her earlier recorded performances of this work I had heard but which was even more potent last Sunday. I have a feeling that she might have been thinking of Gulda during the performance.
Another telling example was in the middle of the second movement, where the pianist has a short moment without orchestra. Here the sound Argerich created was at once very pure, with a focused, crystalline sonority, and at the same time resembling the sound of water trickling down very gently. Her uncertainty at the start probably accounted for the brief talk she had with Ortner during the break between the first and second movements. I couldn’t really hear what she was saying, but judging from her body language, I surmised that she was telling the conductor that she was not at all happy with how she was playing. Ortner looked a bit taken aback for a few seconds, and then went over to Argerich to reassure her that it was all fine. The second movement was marvellously spacious and generous, although a friend who attended the concert with me said that she felt it was a bit too indulgent.
Erwin Ortner and Martha Argerich
By the third movement, she seemed more relaxed and launched into the movement with verve, and the virtuosic passages seemed completely effortless as well. Throughout the concerto, her use of rubato was exemplary. For me it was never overindulgent, and always completely logical, even if she gave the impression of total freedom. The Wiener KammerOrchester tried their best in keeping up with Argerich, but there were still moments of messy ensemble. And Erwin Ortner, who is a renowned choral director, proved himself to be a less than ideal orchestral conductor, as his gestures were rather too round and not clear enough for the orchestra to follow. When she finished, Argerich still didn’t seem entirely happy, despite the public’s unanimous roar of approval. Judging by her frowns, it was as if she wanted to tell the audience they should not be applauding her. But she did break into smiles after a few minutes of unrelenting cheer (and flowers!) from the audience. And we were rewarded with an encore, Chopin’s Mazurka op. 24, no. 2, which was also wonderful.
There was one small detail which I found interesting. As is often the case with Argerich, she began the encore before the applause completely died down, but she did something I had never seen her do before; right before she started to play, she put her right hand up slightly to ask the audience to be quiet and to listen. It was a gentle yet firm gesture, very regal, and charismatic as well.
Taken as a whole, it was not a perfect concert, with a not-so-stable first half. But in the second half Argerich paid wonderful tribute to her former teacher, and the audience clearly cherished what was a very personal gift from her.
Austrian Radio ORF OE1 recorded the concert, and the Gulda and Chopin works will be broadcast on June 1 at 10:05am. Click here to listen to the live stream of OE1.


  1. Thank you very much for posting this review! I was curious about her concert in Vienna. This is a really great review; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

  2. Very nice article - thanks for sharing.

  3. What a great and wonderful review! Please keep us posted for more concerts.