This was 24-carat special. Since its long overdue (and grossly over-budget) debut in 2017, the shiny new Elbphilharmonie has dominated Hamburg’s musical life. However, the Laeiszhalle – over a century older – continues to offer musical excellence, home to the Symphoniker Hamburg, currently in the midst of an enterprising series of live-streamed concerts themed around Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Tonight though, the decks were cleared as classical music royalty took to the stage, Martha Argerich joining Renaud Capuçon for an outstanding recital which included a huge surprise.

Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich © Symphoniker Hamburg
Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich
© Symphoniker Hamburg

After weeks of live streams to empty halls, it still feels odd not to hear the buzz of an expectant audience. Staring into the ceiling of the Großer Saal, all one could hear was Capuçon warming up, then the sound of footsteps echoing before the video editor finally showed us the stage. With the minimum of fuss – Argerich cannot bear fuss – they got straight down to business with a jovial account of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no. 8 in G major, the third of the Op.30 set, dedicated to Tsar Alexander I. Although composed at a time when Beethoven knew he was losing his hearing, it’s full of joy. Capuçon was at his most playful, left foot often swinging in the air, his satin tone immaculately tailored to the musical line. Argerich, giving an occasional flick of her hair, was a miracle of agility and feathery touch, gently teasing rubatos in the central Tempo di minuetto. The Rondo finale, with its piano drone reminiscent of peasant bagpipes, had a pastoral feel, Capuçon bowing furiously in the coda. 

César Franck’s A major sonata is probably his best known piece, a work with a happy genesis, composed as a wedding present for Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886. In the wrong hands it can cloy, but in the best performances – and this was definitely one – there is an aroma of perfumed ecstasy that’s impossible to resist. Capuçon spun gilt threads in the opening, his tone exquisite throughout. Argerich was the perfect foil, her playing feisty, more instinctive. She flung herself into the frenetic semiquavers that open the Allegro in tempestuous fashion, while the third movement had a rhapsodic feel, the violin’s big yearning melody tinged with regret. But the clouds scatter and blue skies prevail in the finale, building in passionate excitement. Without the usual ritual of applause, the players politely bowed to each other, Argerich whispering a simple “Merci”.   

Martha Argerich © Symphoniker Hamburg
Martha Argerich
© Symphoniker Hamburg

But, with all due to respect to the superb Capuçon, it was what came in between these two violin sonatas that astonished. Argerich eschews the limelight and long since gave up solo recitals, her energies focused on chamber music and a small canon of concertos. Even her encores tend to favour collaborative duets with conductor-pianists. Incredibly, Argerich hasn’t performed Chopin’s mighty Third Sonata in public for at least 25 years – and it’s never been captured on film before – so this performance was totally unexpected. It was clearly kept under wraps, the programme only announced on the Symphoniker Hamburg’s website half an hour before the recital began. 

There was no public here, at least in the hall, so perhaps this released Argerich from any tension. She didn’t quite rip into the opening as she did in her legendary 1967 recording – Gramophone famously likened her to “a tigress” – but the Scherzo was lightning fast, every note sparkling and tumbling in cascades, Martha at her mercurial best. She rocked from side to side in the cantabile lines of the Largo, her poetic phrasing improvisatory in nature. She allowed herself an occasional smile and a half glance out into the auditorium, as if revelling in the solitude. After a fleet-fingered finale, Argerich gave an almost accusatory glance to her imaginary audience, acknowledging that she’d not forgotten her eavesdroppers after all. Pure gold. 


This performance was reviewed from the video live stream. 

Watch the video here
*****