Sometimes, you arrive at the concert hall expecting to hear a certain artist or piece of music, only to be greeted by a slip of paper in the program announcing a last-minute substitution. This phenomenon remains true even in the Covid era of streamed performances. The 24th June entry of the 2021 Martha Argerich Festival in Hamburg, which was broadcast internationally on 1st July, featured the Argentine pianist and her Portuguese colleague Maria João Pires teaming up for Mozart’s Sonata for two piano in D major, K448. A preceding concert on the same day boasted Schumann's Märchenbilder as rendered by Argerich and her daughter, violist Lyda Chen. Yet neither of these selections made it to the transmissions. A representative for Paramax Films, the streaming service hosting the festival, said that the Mozart was being “rework[ed]” for broadcast later in the summer.

Maria João Pires
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

At the risk of sounding flippant, there is something oddly appropriate about tuning into the Martha Argerich Festival only to learn the cancellation-prone artist won’t be appearing. Her absence, however, took nothing away from the marvelous Schubert offered by Pires. The Impromptu in B flat major, D. 935, No. 3 served as a lush curtain-raiser, a masterclass in the juxtaposition of throbbing Romanticism with gossamer delicacy throughout the theme and variations. A cloud of death often washes over this posthumous work, but Pires made you listen with new ears by emphasizing passion and vitality, as if it represented the last gush of energy one experiences before shuffling off the mortal coil. If the selection seemed a little bare on its own, rather than set alongside its siblings, it was only because Pires’ refined playing left you wanting more. 

Maria João Pires
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

Instead, we were treated to the Piano Sonata in A major, D.664, another brief work that Pires managed to pack with intricacy and sparkle. (The entire program as broadcast lasted only slightly more than a half hour.) She strongly favored lyricism in the Allegro moderato, with a touch sometimes so light that I wondered if it would sound muted in person. That delicacy contrasted with anxious drama in the Andante, as stern, highly individuated notes emerged from the fingers on Pires’ left hand. The relative calm of the concluding Allegro relaxed me such I felt momentarily jarred when the abrupt conclusion was reached.

Pires announced her retirement from touring in 2018, although she’s never left the stage behind entirely. Her appearance here suggests that her skills continue to age like fine Port. In three years, she will reach the milestone that Argerich achieved on 5th June – her 80th birthday – and it would be wonderful if she was also gifted a festival to highlight the rich depths of her artistry. I would also love to see her perform collaboratively with fine younger musicians – like those who took up Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, also performed on 24th June, which burst forth with volatile sentiment if not always subtlety. 


This performance was reviewed from the Paramax Films video stream

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