In times gone by people used to gather round an upright piano when there was cause for celebration. It was the instrument of choice. For a while the great Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich made a gathering of friends and long-term collaborators together with up-and-coming musicians she wished to support in the Swiss city of Lugano, creating the Progetto Martha Argerich which ran from 2002 until withdrawal of sponsorship forced its closure in 2016. In the meantime she has found a new locus operandi in Hamburg, where for the second year in succession she has been both the guiding spirit and one of the leading performers in events marketed as “an irresistible maelstrom”. This time the week-long festival was extended to ten days and there is every expectation that in 2020 she will be back again with more musical treats.

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

This particular concert put a celebration of the piano at its heart, since each of the three pieces was designed to showcase this instrument. By far the biggest appeal was going to come from the huge chunk of red meat, all juices flowing, represented by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. I have no idea how many times the 78-year-old Argerich has played this work during her inestimable career, but it is a measure of her unique approach that she has the power to view this concerto as something fresh and personal whenever she programmes it. Even when she is not firing on all cylinders – after a few attempts to adjust her stool she merely shrugged her shoulders with a “Let’s get on with it” signal to the conductor, and later succumbed to repeated fits of coughing – her playing is invariably compelling.

Her partner in crime on this occasion was her second husband and trusted collaborator, Charles Dutoit, conducting Hamburg’s third orchestra, the Symphoniker Hamburg, founded in 1957 and now the orchestra-in-residence at the city’s Laeiszhalle. He too knows this Tchaikovsky score intimately: the opening was suitably non troppo and molto maestoso, and throughout he was more than a time-keeper, shaping the contributions from the woodwind section in the first movement with a rare intensity and allowing plenty of air to lighten the textures. The Symphoniker was occasionally behind the beat in the finale but elsewhere played with commitment.

Yet the star of the show was undoubtedly Argerich herself. What struck me especially during the Andantino semplice was her ability to produce sudden explosions of notes from seemingly nowhere and then return to the tenderest cantabile line imaginable. Also, and quite incredibly, she still has the technique to deliver those racing double octaves at breakneck speed. There are few pianists who can shower an audience with the cascades of notes that Tchaikovsky gives us in the outer movements, so cleanly and so effortlessly, and yet not compromise the musical structure in any way. Prommers will have an opportunity to witness Argerich’s high-voltage playing, albeit with differing collaborators, in the upcoming season.

Ravel originally composed his Mother Goose suite for the very young Godebski children, Jean and Mimi, he had befriended in Paris. His intention was to evoke “the poetry of childhood” and these five pieces convey a sense of wonderment at the magic of fairyland. Dutoit must know these miniatures like the back of his hand: every note was gently caressed, deliciously pointed and sometimes teased and stretched, all with variant dabs of colouring, so that the total effect was a vast pattern of shimmering mosaic. Even if the Symphoniker didn’t command ultimate depths of tonal resources, it played with commendable clarity and transparency.

From time to time audiences should be challenged. Stravinsky’s dance cantata Les Noces, dedicated to Diaghilev and premiered at the Ballets Russes by Ernest Ansermet, inhabits Le Sacre territory: it is full of raw, uncompromising sounds which in their relentless intensity and ostinato repetitiveness make for a difficult listening experience. Two things stood out for me. The first was the energy and enthusiastic advocacy which Dutoit, belying his almost 83 years, brought to the piece, shaping the contributions of his four piano soloists and seven percussion players with unwavering rhythmic insistence. The second was the incantatory impact of this work: listen to Orff’s Carmina burana or Messiaen’s Turangalîla, for instance, and you can hear where both composers took their inspiration.

The 25-minute-piece consists of four tableaux, representing in “The Tresses” and “The Bridegroom’s House” the preparations of bride and groom for their forthcoming nuptials, the sorrows of both sets of in-laws in “The Departure of the Bride” and the outpouring of ecstatic joy in “The Wedding Feast”. This performance benefited from the four young Russian vocal soloists, whose idiomatic fervour accentuated the untamed wildness in Stravinsky’s writing. The 45-odd voices of the Europa Chor Akademie Görlitz, drawn from 25 different European countries, occasionally sounded a little under-nourished but maintained stamina to the end.

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