There are pianists, and then there’s Martha Argerich. Teaming up once again with Daniel Barenboim, who seems to come alive when he’s conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, this pianistic force of nature brought to the eager Proms audience a piece that was once purportedly declared bad and vulgar by pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, but has become one of the most popular concertos of all time and a mainstay of Argerich’s repertoire.

Martha Argerich and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Martha Argerich and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor is a conundrum. Some say the first movement is a hotchpotch; others say it is innovative. Either way, in Argerich’s hands it is a lyrical piece, full of extrovert virtuosity and with melodies aplenty but also subtle and intimate. In this performance, Argerich showed granite determination and magical delicacy, and while the forceful first movement was more deliberate than reckless, this did reveal some fine detailing, particularly in the seamless interplay between soloist and orchestra. Vivacious and precise, Argerich had the heart of a lion in the third movement but, despite the bluster and technical wizardry of the outer movements, if you really want to hear how this concerto should be played, the second movement was the one for me. Argerich’s mercurial shimmerings and the gentle ebbing of the orchestra revealed subtleties and voices that are sometimes lost, and Argerich defied logic with the apparent simplicity of her playing. Yes, there were one or two scuff marks, but this was a very polished performance indeed.

In the orchestra's 20th anniversary year, the choice of concert opener was a piece that started their Proms journey back in 2003. Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 (the “Unfinished”) is a masterpiece of tension and release, and Barenboim’s brooding first movement allowed him to build up a fine sense of drama, although the rather slow pace resulted in a lack of bite and some over-smoothing, before caressing the Royal Albert Hall with a calm air of serenity in the Andante con moto, revealing wonderfully cultured horns and a clean purity of tone in the woodwinds. The string playing was lustrous and fulsome throughout, with Barenboim’s keen feel for the shape of the piece and his carefully placed changes in dynamics winning the day.

Daniel Barenboim © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Witold Lutosławski’s celebrated Concerto for Orchestra was the piece that put him firmly on the map. Written at the end of his folk-inspired period before his migration towards modernism, it shows through its dynamism and depth not only the composer’s great sense of structure and invention but also how gifted he was as an orchestrator. Barenboim clearly has an affinity with this piece, and it showed in his determination to draw out both precision and cohesion. The Intrada was sharp and gutsy, the orchestra producing a big, bold sound and plenty of rhythmic drive (shades of Bartók), and the muted chatterings of the nocturnal Capriccio had sprinkles of sparkle, with the sinister procession of the Passacaglia in the third movement leading to the gorgeous harmonies of the Corale section and the frantic climax being both terrifying and ecstatic. Lutosławski described his music as “fishing for souls”, looking for listeners who felt the same way as he did. With a performance of this versatility and conviction, I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets you hooked.

Barenboim rarely gets away without an encore, and the drama and drive of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture gave this Proms audience exactly what they wanted.

****1