Martha Argerich took to the Konzerthaus stage on Tuesday night and tore through Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, fingers ablaze. Everything was energy and wind and surprise; she highlighted unexpected lines, alternately feathering out her sound to nothing and producing explosive blocks of sound. She sprinted through technical runs with her characteristic articulation and breathtaking technique, and she made it seem like child’s play. The energy did not lag for a second, and if the Wiener Symphoniker could not always match her tempi, they certainly seemed inspired to try. The work is not easy to coordinate; it is much more a partnership between soloist and orchestra than a piano solo with accompaniment. The piano ducks and weaves behind orchestral lines, emerging for a cascade of color and then receding back into the texture. Lahav Shani did an admirable job of holding things together, though the ensemble was by no means perfect.

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

Today the Third is the most beloved of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, though it took time to garner public approval. It is not long, and packs a wealth of material into its scant thirty minutes performance time. The composer shifts on a dime between ethereal, floating moments of beautiful unease to romantic gestures to motives full of quirky edginess. There are even neoclassical bits, often with an eerie, modern twist. It is genius music, but appeals to the brain as much as the heart; those looking for more than fleeting touches of sentimentality should look elsewhere. Argerich’s style is well suited to aspects of the work; she is not interested in wallowing in any sort of sentimental space or getting all that rhapsodic. It would be tough to find a less self-indulgent performer – she just gets on with things, and with a conviction and drive that are overwhelming. In response to rapturous applause, she and Shani, himself a prodigious pianist, gave creative interpretations of two movements of Ravel’s Ma Mere l'Oye. 

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances exist in another corner of the aesthetic spectrum with their romantically singable melodies, beautiful instrumental solos, melancholy and rich emotion. Written in 1940, they are the composer's final large-scale orchestral work — which he referred to as his “last spark” – and were originally conceived for ballet. The movements, initially named Midday, Twilight and Night, are hard not to hear programmatically. The first is full of lush, melancholy romanticism, its melodic section interrupted by a catchy rhythmic section straight out of a John Williams movie score. The second is a dusky waltz featuring scads of solos and an particularly juicy violin solo (outstanding, Sophie Heinrich.) The final movement focuses on endings — Rachmaninov even wrote "Hallelujah" and “thanks be to the Lord” in the score. Religious themes, including both Orthodox and Gregorian chant (Dies irae) are quoted, and things definitely get spooky — the supernatural creeping out of the woodwork. 

The Symphoniker, which I do not always find suited to this type of literature, was in smashing form and produced some of the best Russian sound I have heard from it in a while — rich low strings, beautiful double reed solos and impassioned melodic lines just some of the evening's memorable highlights. 

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