Aimez-vous Brahms? Sorry if so, because he was expunged from last night’s all-Johannes programme along with the distinguished musicians who had been engaged to perform his first Piano Quartet. That left only (only!) Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim to entertain us, except that they too had traded in their scheduled Brahms duets for four-handed works by Mozart, Debussy and Bizet.

Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim
© Caroline Doutre

The reason for this wholesale change is a mystery. Still, since it meant we had two living legends for a full evening rather than half of one, few but the most vehement disciples of the German composer would complain. Kindred keyboard spirits, both born in Buenos Aires in the early 1940s, Argerich and Barenboim are among the most celebrated living exponents of their instrument – and now at last they have played together in Aix. A previous duo appearance at the 2018 Festival de Pâques was aborted when Barenboim fell ill; in 2021 it’s a miracle either of them appeared at all, let alone squished together at a single keyboard, cheek by jowl and maskless.

All the music in their joyous concert was composed to delight the ear, and during a distressing pandemic there can be no higher calling. Barenboim played primo and Argerich secondo (apart from two brief numbers in Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants) in music of such intimacy that their whole beings seemed to intertwine. The salon mood was established from the outset when they broke off from a chatty tête-à-tête and slid without ceremony (and an immediate meeting of minds and muscles, a beast with four hands) into the opening Allegro of Mozart’s C major sonata, K521. This choice cut of mature Wolfgang at his most technically demanding is not for the squeamish, but they played with its demands more like friends than colleagues, nowhere more so than in the rocking rhythm of the Allegretto finale’s classically gracious main theme and its effervescent conclusion.

Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim
© Caroline Doutre

Debussy’s Six Épigraphes antiques are sinewy, sensuous miniatures, orientalised companions to his sapphic Chansons de Bilitis and every bit as erotic. In the third piece, Pour que la nuit soit propice, the pianists’ hands overlapped like interlocking spurs while the final number, Pour remercier la pluie du matin, was a warm bath of pentatonic sexiness. Along the way there were moments of suspect ensemble to remind us that these players do not spend their lives together at the same keyboard; yet elsewhere, in Pour la danseuse aux crotales for example, we might have been hearing a single musician at work.

Although Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Ravel followed in his wake, it was Bizet who trailblazed his countrymen’s sophisticated nostalgia for childish simplicity in his suite, Jeux d’enfants. Around 150 of the pianists’ combined years fell away as the composer’s more literal pieces ran the full gamut of trumpets-and-drums, soap bubbles, galloping horses and leapfrog. They relished the sheer pleasure of it all, as did I. In L’Escarpolette Barenboim played cascades of treble arpeggios while Argerich shaped the most sublime melody; in Le Bal, the popular showpiece that closes the suite, even the splashed notes felt deliberate – as innocent as the pair's chuckles as they sauntered off to resume their chat.


This performance was reviewed from the Festival de Pâques video stream

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