I guess you’re permitted a degree of capriciousness when you turn 80. Martha Argerich only cancelled the one performance in the 12-day Hamburg festival that bears her name (to prepare for this final programme) but other concerts – given before audiences in the Laeiszhalle – had their online streams delayed by a number of days, one even stripped of its Argerich content. Changes of personnel and programme are understandable when Covid-related travel restrictions impact scheduling, but there has been an element of lottery to Paramax Films’ online offerings that has understandably frustrated viewers.

Martha Argerich
© Daniel Dittus

Programme changes turned much of the first half into a Baroque-fest. Akane Sakai gave a spruce, if not especially characterful account of Bach’s First Partita BWV825, while Iddo Bar-Shaï lavished rather too much syrup on a couple of Couperin numbers. Vivaldi’s Concerto for 4 violins, cello and strings in B minor, RV 580, from L’estro armonico was a pretty sedate affair. The byplay between Akiko Suwanai, Tedi Papavrami, Thomas Lefort and Symphoniker Hamburg Konzertmeister Adrian Iliescu was rhythmically alert, but there was little sense of joy here, merely a dutiful dispatching of notes. 

Things looked up as we turned from Baroque to Bartók and the entrance of Argerich herself. She and Nelson Goerner performed the Sonata for two pianos and percussion, the pianos turned towards the back of the stage so as to maintain eye contact with excellent percussionists Alexej Gerassimez and Lukas Böhm. They relished the brooding opening, Argerich and Goerner seeming to sense each other’s timing, but the Allegro molto kicked in with a great sense of vitality and crisp rhythm. The nocturnal central movement felt suitably sombre and the upbeat finale was given playfully before its gentle wind-down.

Nelson Goerner, Martha Argerich, Lukas Böhm and Alexej Gerassimez
© Hamburg Symphony Orchestra

Although the first half of this festival finale was streamed live on Wednesday 30th June, the broadcast of the second half was delayed until three days later. Was it worth the wait? Truly. Argerich was not just performing her only solo contribution to the festival (she hasn’t given a solo recital for decades), but was playing Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for the very first time, even if she only played six movements as opposed to the originally advertised full cycle (the title should really be “The Months”, published as a series in the monthly St Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist). After a coquettish tickle of the keys, Argerich settled into a wistful Song of the Lark (March), while employing generous rubato to Snowdrop (April), rocking from side to side. She caressed the keys in White Nights (May) and spun a beautiful cantabile line in the score’s most famous number, Barcarolle (June). There was neat articulation in the skittish outer sections of Harvest (August), followed by the glowing fireside embers of Autumn Song (October). These were soulful, intimate performances, almost as if Argerich was unaware of her audience but playing for herself, although a clumsy edit at the end had the applause breaking in far too soon. Had she played another number that wasn’t sanctioned for broadcast? 

From the seasons in Russia to the seasons in Argerich’s native Buenos Aires – albeit without the Argentinian pianist – for Astor Piazzolla’s Las cuatro estaciones porteñas, arranged for piano trio and charismatically played by Papavramai, Eugene Lifschitz and Alexander Gurning, bringing a smoky tango club feel to the Laeiszhalle.

Martha Argerich sounds the tam-tam
© Daniel Dittus

These concerts have ended with the performers lining up to take a bow, each presented with a single white rose, Argerich’s always red, which she takes great delight in brushing against her face. At this finale, though, she was presented instead with a huge bouquet of white and pink peonies and roses, after which she was invited to take up a new instrument… sounding a tam-tam with a sense of impish delight to bring the festival to a close.

This performance was reviewed from the Paramax Films video stream