Throughout the course of her extraordinary career, Martha Argerich has somehow skirted a concert appearance in Cleveland, but fortunately matters changed for the better Monday evening. Presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition, Argerich performed to a sold-out crowd at Severance Hall in tandem with Sergei Babayan, the Armenian native who has made Cleveland his home since winning the Competition in 1989. Credit is due to Babayan, who has long admired Argerich, in bringing her to Cleveland for her much awaited local debut. A rapturous ovation greeted the duo before even a note was played, and without further fanfare they opened the daunting program which had at its core Babayan’s own two-piano transcriptions of music by Prokofiev.

Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich © Roger Mastroianni
Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich
© Roger Mastroianni

The Twelve Movements from Romeo and Juliet afforded one the opportunity to hear selections both familiar and those beyond the composer’s Op.75 transcriptions for solo piano and the well-worn orchestral suites. The percussive opening of the Prologue led directly to the angst of Montagues and Capulets, so memorably conveying the tensions between the two fractious families, only to be countered by a sinuous middle section which dropped down to a whisper in evidence of the duo’s astonishing dynamic range. The Gavotte, familiar from the Classical Symphony, evoked a stately, old world charm as obfuscated through a piquant dissonance, while The Young Juliet sounded even more capricious on the busyness of two pianos. It was really quite a sight how in sync the pianists were, exuding an electric chemistry, and for those accustomed to the solo piano version, it was particularly striking how much more of an orchestral sonority could be realized with the addition of the second piano.

The following Folk Dance burst with an ecstatic energy, and the Dance with Mandolins proved to be a lesser-known gem, bringing to life the strumming of the titular instrument. In these lighter selections, it was apparent Babayan’s concoction was keen to emphasize more than just the tragic elements of Prokofiev’s ballet. Nonetheless, the inevitable couldn’t be avoided – building at one point to a passionate outpouring, the wistfulness of Romeo and Juliet Before Departure proved to be merely the calm before the storm. The concluding Death of Tybalt was a work of breathless runs and an unrelenting chordal finale of enormous and ultimately cataclysmic power.

Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich © Roger Mastroianni
Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich
© Roger Mastroianni

Attention was turned to Mozart to begin the second half, namely the Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Situated between the monumental Prokofiev works, this otherwise substantial piece may have sounded like a mere trifle, yet the level of collaboration and immediacy of communication continued to raise the bar as the evening progressed. The opening movement was a study in poise and balance; while the two pianos often contrasted one another in the Prokofiev, here they complemented each other in an elegant equilibrium. Melancholy with an ineffable grace was achieved in the Andante, and the closing rondo was of pure joie de vivre, with Argerich and Babayan clearly enjoying themselves.

A further and even more impressive set of Babayan’s Prokofiev transcriptions completed the program, with these less-familiar excerpts being drawn from the composer’s incidental music, film scores and opera, and here for the first time Argerich assumed the primo role. “The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father” made for an imposing opening, with eerie tremolos burgeoning into a massive wash of sound. This was countered by a pair of dances from Eugene Onegin: a mazurka and polka, brief and vivacious. Another dance followed, a pulsating polonaise from The Queen of Spades to which Argerich brought forth a melodic line characterized by unnerving repetitions. The Pushkin Valse No. 2 showed Prokofiev at perhaps his most Chopinesque while “Natasha and Andrei’s Valse” from War and Peace contrasted the flowing waltz theme with fearsome passages in octaves, given with a dazzling virtuosity. And finally, the most formidable of all, in returning to The Queen of Spades with the “Idée fixe”, a thunderous and shattering final statement.

Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan © Roger Mastroianni
Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan
© Roger Mastroianni

The only thing louder than those closing notes was the applause that followed, and Argerich and Babayan responded in kind with a pair of encores from Rachmaninov’s Suites for Two Pianos. Delicate filigree in the Barcarolle from the First Suite flowed with liquescent effortlessness, and the Second Suite’s Valse, whether in volatile perpetual motion or in the sweeping, big-boned melody, marked yet another high point of this inspired collaboration.