A revered pianist’s 80th birthday celebration took a festive spin in Hamburg last week as some steamy Piazzolla and gemütlich Lanner and Kreisler joined the Martha Argerich Music Festival line-up. Not particularly known for light fare, violinist Gidon Kremer, himself approaching his 75th birthday, was joined by three members of the ensemble he created, Kremerata Baltica. The quartet played Lanner's charming Die Werber (The Suitors), dating from 1835 before the advent of the Strauss dynasty and as tasty a nougat as any dance concocted by Vienna’s “waltz kings”.

Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich
© Daniel Dittus

For me the highlight of the program was a series of arrangements of tangos by Astor Piazzolla, performed by the brother-and-sister duo, Sergio Tiempo and Karin Lechner on two sprawling grand pianos nested in yin-yang style. Whether he intended so or not, Piazzolla may have been the ultimate crossover composer of the 20th century, the spicy echoes of his music as at ease in the concert hall as under the awning outside a bodega. The Venezuelan-Argentine artists brought high energy and fiery good looks to their performance, Lechner in a blazing scarlet gown, and Tiempo giving off a decidedly Dudamel vibe. Their playing was electrifying, with plenty of “knuckle glissandi” and spirited attacks on keys and fallboard, a natty percussive effect.

The concert opened with a serious work presented in a casual style: Arno Babadjanian’s Piano Trio in F sharp minor from 1952. While not in the semi-popular vein of other pieces on the program, this is a work of relentless drive and sinuous Eastern European twists and turns, engaging throughout. Babadjanian, who died in 1983, was an Armenian-Soviet composer with a vast catalog of chamber and symphonic works. Violinist Michael Guttman was joined by cellist Jing Zhao and pianist Elena Lisitsian, all capable, spirited, and seamlessly interconnected. Following the blazing final movement, the audience responded with shouts of that 21st-century cry of approbation, “Woo hoo!”

The concert ended with some delightful Fritz Kreisler tunes that are less often heard today than they were in the age of Menuhin and Heifetz. Accompanied by the grande dame Martha Argerich herself, Kremer minimized the Schmaltz in lilting performances of Liebesleid and Schön Rosmarin. For a few minutes I could close my eyes and drift off to a café near Vienna’s Staatsoper, sipping espresso with a chaser of cool water, and pondering a second slice of torte.

This performance was reviewed from the Paramax Films live video stream