CD choice: Meet the first lady of technique

PROKOFIEV, PIANO CONCERTOS NOS.1 AND 3 BARTOK, PIANO CONCERTO NO.3 MARTHA ARGERICH (PIANO), MONTREAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA/ CHARLES DUTOIT RECORDED 1997 EMI CDC5 56654 2
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The Independent Culture
LISTENING TO Martha Argerich's versicoloured new recording of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto suggested a musical parallel that has never occurred to me before - between Serge Prokofiev and that most urbane of French masters, Camille Saint-Saens. Both were fabulous pianists; both favoured a colourful variety of musical neo-classicism; both composed five piano concertos, and - here's the spooky bit - Saint-Saens died on the very day that Prokofiev premiered his Third Concerto in Chicago (16 December, 1921). Furthermore, the Third is easily the wittiest, most tuneful and most "Gallic" of Prokofiev's concertos.

Argerich invests the dreamier sections of the second and third movements with a rapt, sensual quality that invites comparison with Emil Gilels, while her coltish exuberance in the faster music is only marginally less striking than it was 30 years ago, when she collaborated with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic for her first recording of the piece. On this new version, Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony surpass themselves with one of the most elegant accompaniments the concerto has ever enjoyed (certainly on disc), and the sound is superb.

The First Concerto is a very different beast. "Coarse and crude, primitive and cacophonic," as The Voice of Moscow put it after the 1912 world premiere, though Argerich offsets the composer's raw-voiced impulsiveness with delicious nuancing, especially in the brief but gentle slow movement.

Bartok's Third Concerto, on the other hand, suggests inner healing in a life that was irrevocably damaged by being thrown into exile. The slow movement, "Adagio religioso", opens with a series of quiet, simple chords. Play them dead in time, and you risk monotony; play them too freely, and you spoil the musical line. True to form, Argerich allows herself maximum freedom within a disciplined framework.

Furthermore, she collaborates with the orchestra as "first among equals", and I doubt whether they took the privilege lightly.

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