The 2021 edition of the Martha Argerich Festival celebrates the 80th birthday of a formidable pianist who has been at the centre of the world’s musical life for decades. But it was also conceived as a resilient statement, a near fortnight-long reunion of some of today’s greatest musicians, of all generations, performing to audiences in Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle, now that restrictions are slowly being lifted in many parts of the world.

Catriona Morison, Sylvain Cambreling and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra
© Daniel Dittus

One of these exceptional artists is Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison who sang Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été. With a voice equally powerful and subtle across the entire span and clear French diction, the 2017 winner of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition gave a truly engaging performance in this song cycle that Berlioz set to six poems by Théophile Gauthier. From singing with great simplicity the charming Villanelle to bringing out anguish in Sur les lagunes and tenderness in Absence to mixing elation, longing and even a hint of impish mischievousness in the closing L’Île inconnue, Morison shaped phrases with utmost care. Conductor Sylvain Cambreling was a great partner, never letting the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra overwhelm her voice, the orchestral pace always in sync with the singer’s intentions. At the same time, he clearly brought out the characteristic features of Berlioz' idiom, unmistakable even in this sparse orchestration. Special moments included the cellos’ playing at the beginning of Le Spectre de la rose or the music fading away at the end of Sur les lagunes.

Martha Argerich has championed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major throughout her career. Amazingly, not only does she continue to play it with great enthusiasm but seems to uncover new details each time – a previously hidden inner voice, a chord that she lingers on a bit longer. In her overall approach, Argerich is constantly looking backwards, evoking Haydnesque playfulness and Mozartian operatic serenity, as well as forwards to, say, Beethoven’s G major concerto. Every detail was perfectly chiseled with bravura passages (such as the final bars of the first movement cadenza) miraculously transformed into poetic statements. In their dialogues with the soloist, the Hamburg Symphony's players often found it difficult to reciprocate Argerich’s diaphanous airiness, sounding instead rather plain. Entrances were not always as sharp as they should have been.

Martha Argerich, Sylvain Cambreling and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra
© Daniel Dittus

After her performance, the pianist regaled the video audience with playful looks, captured by a handheld camera placed at the stage’s exit, but repeatedly refused to play an encore, despite an enthusiastic public clamour for many minutes. The festival’s first live stream was not without its problems, the sound was occasionally rough, and cameras moved abruptly out of focus several times. 

The evening was prefaced by an adaptation for string ensemble of Webern’s Langsamer Satz quartet. Cambreling and the Hamburg strings replicated the transparency of the original but were less successful in rendering the early 20th-century Viennese angst hidden beneath the smooth melodic surface.

This performance was reviewed from the Paramax Films live video stream