“You know that I am, so to speak, stuck in music – that I am immersed in it every day,” Mozart wrote in 1778 in a letter to his father. The Berlin Staatskapelle has cleverly chosen this quotation for Martha Argerich, who started her 75th birthday with a two and a half hour afternoon concert at the Philharmonie, under the partnerlike direction of Daniel Barenboim (who, one might fairly say, has similar workaholic tendencies: at the close of the concert, he would be moving on to conduct Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta in the State Opera at the Schillertheater).

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

It would have been inappropriate if, on the occasion of the birthday concert of a great living pianist, one were to carp or cast aspersions, especially given that the party was for a good cause: to raise funds for the renovation of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. But since a review should be a review, no gushing, let’s get all the negatives out of the way. Firstly: the string entry to Happy Birthday, with which the orchestra surprised the birthday girl, who was already seated at her Steinway, was untidy. Secondly: there is no secondly.

The emotional high point happened right at the start, as Argerich and Barenboim opened the concert as twin soloists in Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, KV448. Argerich, as always, sat at the inner of the two pianos, as if wanting to be shielded. In the foreground, Barenboim dominated, playing with notable more precision than in his solo appearances of last year. But the exciting, flexible, lyrical sound was Argerich's.

In direct comparison with grace notes in the first movement, Barenboim was almost coarse when set against Argerich's softness. As her piano took up the theme of the Andante, an inner light shone through the music. Each phrase that had already sounded very good with Barenboim gained, under her fingers, that certain something: her master class in agogic accenting, for instance at the hesitant beginning of the development of the first movement, made beautiful music into great music.  Although one could clearly hear the differences in temperament and precision between the two pianists, the musical intimacy between them was clear at every moment – blind trust that makes for clear insight.

Next, Argerich’s interpretation of Beethoven’s first two Piano concerti was breathtaking. Two celebrated pianists of Argerich’s generation, Radu Lupu and Maurizio Pollini, performed recently in Berlin: in technical respects, both showed a number of unmistakable signs of aging (which one could gladly overlook in view of their great artistic personalities and musicality). With Argerich, there was no trace of this; she played with uncanny assurance through the virtuosic passages of the first Piano Concerto in C, Op. 15.

But the perfection of technical playing, audible not least in the thunderous cadenzas,  as well as the physical strength, was only the starting point for an incomparable richness of shape: every phrase was high in tension, pearlescent filigree, shaded, clear as glass, agile, potent – and showing mastery of the transitions between each of these rich musical worlds. No-one listening could be left feeling that Beethoven’s first piano concerto was an “early work.” The Coda of the Adagio, subdued and stretched to the extremes, and the elegance and spirit of the fireworks in the final Rondo in the Piano concerto no. 2 in B flat major, Op.19, were just as much highpoints as the astonishing, almost explosive performance of the first movement of the first concerto. The closing rondo Allegro scherzando was so filled with energy that at the end, one was only left with the awful cliché of a tigress at the keyboard.

Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus
The Staatskapelle, under the direction of Daniel Barenboim (relaxed as usual, but never careless this evening) taunted any attempt at a historically informed performance with its broad tempi, but kept an envelopingly warm timbre. The only reason the orchestra wasn’t at the soloist’s feet was that it was too busy fulfilling her every wish. Also, in the Adagio of the B flat major concerto, Argerich unmistakably encouraged them to follow an even higher tempo. Notable in this was the clarinettist Tinor Reman, who shone in a tender duet with Argerich in the Largo of the C major concerto. It’s hard to imagine that the two Beethoven concerti could be performed better in a “traditional” (i.e. not historically informed) performance.

In her brilliant encore, Argerich did not leave the 18th Century, giving us Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K.141, which is really a Toccata and left nothing to be desired in virtuosity. The audience’s response moved from enthusiastic to deafening. At the end, Argerich escaped from the unpleasant rhythmic clapping by clapping back and made her exit, not without patiently fulfilling every autograph request and accepting every birthday gift.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin.

*****