Sooner or later age will catch up with you. If you happen to be Martha Argerich, you may look a little world-weary by the time you reach the grand old age of 80, entering and exiting the platform a little unsteadily. You may no longer want to use Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor as a display vehicle for virtuosity, with feats of prestidigitation and inexhaustible amounts of vitality, but there are still rewards.

Martha Argerich
© Daniel Dittus

Partnered by Sylvain Cambreling and Symphoniker Hamburg, Argerich took all the time in the world to make the dream-like sequences in the first movement tell, stroking the keys quite lovingly, yet always maintaining clarity of articulation and evenness of touch, paring back her own dynamics at one point to allow the clarinet solo his moment of glory. The cadenza was taken very steadily without a hint of impatience, the lines building and growing cumulatively, the trills at the close a mere whisper.

Without a pause she was into the Intermezzo, choosing the most intimate of moods for the listener to eavesdrop on, lingering in the transition to the Finale as though unwilling to return to the shafts of sunlight with which the composer launches this joyous movement. Like a child chasing after its exercise hoop, she matched the fizzing currents of energy supplied by the orchestra and an assiduously supportive Cambreling, stepping up the tempo a notch as she reached the concluding bars. Argerich’s brief encore, Schumann’s Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, was delivered in quite measured fashion but had remarkable layers of poignancy, as though she felt the heartache herself whilst recalling scenes from childhood so many moons ago.

Cambreling is an unusual conductor to watch. Now 72, he directs his players without a baton and eschews all micro-management. Sometimes using the right hand to shape phrases, the left hand by his side, he has an impressive repertoire of body language: wrapping and scooping motions with both hands, palms sometimes outstretched, an index finger pointing upwards, leaning into the different front desks, now and then hunching and relaxing his shoulders, knees bending and straightening, nodding rhythmically with the beat. 

There wasn’t much room for Eusebius in his interpretation of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony. It was Florestan from the word go, not a whiff of the hallowed old tradition of an introductory Andante, no gentle stretching of the limbs, but straight two-in-the-bar no nonsense. No broadening towards the end either, the coda despatched without any feeling of summation. It was all like watching a passenger catching sight of a waiting bus at the bus-stop and desperate for it not to pull away. Bracing in its way, but also a little breathless.

Cambreling simply got on with the job. Yet even in this symphony with the sunniest of all keys, Schubert is still in touch with his Eusebius. In the middle of the slow movement there are repeated horn calls which, in Tovey’s words, “lull like a bell haunted by the human soul”. Gloss them over and you lose the spell of magical darkness. 

There were instances of sensitive solo work among the individual woodwind players and also as a choir, but the wiry-sounding strings failed to summon up enough heft and tonal resources to do justice to the swing and sway of the Scherzo or to drive home the relentless message of the Finale. At times I felt I was watching early rounds of Strictly, where the dance rhythms are just about recognisable but the celebrities are so preoccupied with their steps that they never quite project the certainty of being on top of their game.