The current edition of the George Enescu Festival is only at its midpoint, but there is little doubt that Martha Argerich’s outstanding performance in Ravel’s G major Concerto will be considered one of the peaks of this edition of the biennial event hosted in Bucharest.

Martha Argerich
© Cătălina Filip

Forty years after her famous recording with Claudio Abbado, this concerto remains one of the few Argerich continues to play on a regular basis. Amazingly, despite so many reiterations, the performance sounded fresh – even improvisatory – in the magnificent Adagio assai, especially during the piano’s sensual dialogue with the cor anglais. After a 65-years-long career, her technical agility remains formidable and her astonishing gift for combining fireworks and poetry is undiminished. Few other pianists have Argerich’s naturalness, her ability to epitomize the essence of music rather than interpret it. From the initial whip-crack and solo piccolo to the last bars of the Presto, dispatched at dazzling speed, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Argerich’s long-term collaborator, Charles Dutoit, gave her outstanding support. The conductor unmistakably let the pianist be in command, wisely anticipating every little shift in tone or rhythm, both in the jazzy outer movements and in the serene central one. The orchestra, particularly the woodwinds, interpreted every note with great sensitivity.

It’s truly regretful that a pianist capable of playing with such a tonal beauty and amazing virtuosity has only rarely given solo performances since the early 1980s. Gingerly nudged to the keyboard by Dutoit, Argerich offered the full capacity crowd one of her signature encores: Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K 141. Perfectly suited as a follow-up to Ravel’s subtle allusions to Baroque forms, the exquisitely balanced performance let everyone dream about a day when Argerich might return for a solo performance filled with music she loves, from Chopin and Schumann to Ravel and Prokofiev.

Unfortunately, the interpretation of the opening piece, Enescu’s First Rhapsody, was way less successful. Obviously, as many programs as possible should pay homage to the tutelary spirit of the Festival, but this piece, in particular, deserves more than a perfunctory reading. Composed when Enescu was not yet twenty, and one of his better-known outputs, the work is a successful attempt to construct a classical music composition starting from a set of more or less pure folkloric themes. It’s essentially a sequence of dances, carefully orchestrated, growing faster and livelier as the time passes. Almost nothing of the ebullient character of the Rhapsody transpired in the RPO’s leaden interpretation. Colors were missing, entries were at times tentative and there was no sense of gradual detachment from the gravitational pull.

Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit
© Cătălina Filip

Considering that the First Rhapsody was composed in Paris, after Enescu finished his studies at the Conservatoire, one can say that the Palace Hall evening was fully dedicated to French music, not at all a surprise for Dutoit’s admirers. After the intermission, he conducted two well-known warhorses – Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Boléro (never failing to delight audiences). Actually there was three, if one takes into account the encore: a loud fragment from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.

Charles Dutoit has probably conducted these works hundreds of times. Undoubtedly, the Swiss-born maestro has a clear understanding of French music’s characteristics. He also knows very well what he is looking for from his musicians, who played with flowing ease. There is clearly a close-knit collaboration between the conductor and an ensemble he has been leading since 2009. Everything was more or less comme il faut but, compared to Argerich’s Ravel, there was little mystery and no sparkling in these touched-by-routine renditions. There was no escape from a well-defined comfort zone. Several high points in La Mer – the subtle harp playing, the muted trumpet triplets, musical images of waves crashing – did not let one forget that there was no overall sense of elation.