MUSIC / Glass act: Stephen Johnson on Martha Argerich

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The Independent Culture
Martha Argerich is one of the phenomenal pianists of our time; there doesn't seem to be any dissent about that. There is always a special buzz in the air before one of her concerts, heightened, perhaps, by the dread suspicion that she might just pull out at the last minute. But for her Barbican Hall appointment with the Suisse Romande Orchestra last Saturday she was present and very much correct. It was an astonishing display of pianism. The tempo at which she launched the finale of the Schumann Concerto was one that few of her contemporaries would risk. But it wasn't just fast - or even just fast and accurate; it was clear as cut glass, superbly shaped and gripping right through to the end.

To raise any doubts in the face of such playing feels like churlishness in the extreme, but as the finale waltzed wildly forward, or as the first movement coda hurled itself into the white water, a question began to form: what would Schumann have thought of it? The delicacy of the Intermezzo's opening phrases, and many fine touches later on, opened up glimpses of a truly Schumannesque poetry. Towards the end of the finale, though, the image that shot into mind was of something feral: a powerful cat poising itself for the last, deadly attack. At one point in the coda she actually appeared to pounce on the keyboard.

It was electrifying, of course. But then the memories returned of another Argerich Barbican performance, six or seven years ago, in which she played the Prokofiev Third Concerto. All the qualities described above were there, but there was also a sense of deep engagement between player and composer. If there was an element of friction, of contest, it was on equal terms. Not here, though: if at the end she had seized the score in her teeth and carried it off like a triumphant tigress, I don't think we would have been too surprised.

In a way it was somewhat unfair to the Swiss composer Eric Gaudibert to put his L'echarpe d'Iris ('The Scarf of Iris') before Argerich when, no doubt, much of the audience was counting the seconds to the star appearance. This was an accomplished, appealing piece, however, with echoes of the 'impressionist' Ligeti, and a feeling for alluring colours and non-tonal harmonies that was all its own. For those brought up with the old Ernest Ansermet / Suisse Romande recordings of French or Swiss repertoire, there was an added interest. The impression from those historical classics is of an orchestra galvanised by an outstanding conductor but technically less than perfect. On the evidence of this concert, there is a lot more polish in the playing these days, but at the cost of some of the once-distinctive timbres - especially those reedy oboes and bassoons.

But the Shostakovich Tenth Symphony they gave under Armin Jordan in the second half was far from characterless. Jordan looked tired, leaning back on a chair between the movements, but the performance had energy, intensity and a strong sense of narrative continuity. The final pages bore out exultantly the D H Lawrence quotation in Anthony Burton's programme note - 'Look] We have come through]'

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