MUSIC / On the rocks: Adrian Jack on Kremer and Argerich at the RFH, and Hampson at the Wigmore Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Martha Argerich says she enjoys playing the piano but doesn't like the career of a pianist. That's why she plays chamber music, notably with the violinist Gidon Kremer, in preference to leading the glamorous but lonely life of a solo recitalist.

Argerich is in the happy position of choosing what she does. All the more reason to be puzzled by her appearance at the Royal Festival Hall with Kremer last Monday, playing three sonatas by Beethoven for piano and violin. Although Kremer played with character and feeling, Argerich rattled through everything with a distinctly ungracious air of boredom.

It's nice when artists get their prayers over with backstage rather than have us witness their piety, and it's a relief when a violinist keeps his tuning ritual to the minimum; but this pair's haste to get it all done with was almost improper. In the mighty Kreutzer Sonata, Argerich started the theme of the central variations immediately after the final chord of the first movement, and shaped it so loosely that it became a casual amble. Then her responses to each fluctuation of mood and tempo in the finale were pat and petulant. Neither did she give Kremer much quarter in the two sonatas in the first half - the C minor, Opus 30 and G major, Opus 96. Were she to be cursed with less facility, she might wake up to the real sources of energy in Beethoven's music; the deep grain, the humour, the joy, and the surprises.

I would rather have heard Argerich in Schumann. And quite honestly, I would rather have heard Thomas Hampson singing Schumann at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday instead of wasting his luxurious baritone and great gifts of interpretation on poor stuff in the 'Discover American Song]' series.

American song, Hampson said, is more than Charles Ives and Cole Porter. And a good deal less, it seems. Hampson didn't sing any Porter, but the Ives songs he offered were by far the best in the programme: The Housatonic at Stockbridge, with its magical, tangled piano part; the naively chirpy Memories ('Very Pleasant' and 'Rather Sad'); and The Children's Hour, where Longfellow's twee lyrics are redeemed by music that is comforting but not cosy. There was also Bernstein's incantatory setting of Whitman's To What You Said, and a squirm-making setting by William Neidlinger (1863-1924), Memories of Lincoln, whose piano part laboured a falling third past the point of embarrassment.

Charles Griffes was represented by four German settings, which were lush, romantic and derivative. Not much American flavour there. But at least their romanticism and European character was less apologetic than Samuel Barber's. On this showing, Barber seemed best when simple, as in The Daisies, and most pretentious when dissonant, in Night Wanderers, but altogether without memorable ideas and strangely, for a composer who composed a piano sonata for Horowitz, lame in his accompaniments. Not that Craig Rutenberg was much more than a stodgy partner for Hampson, and too fond of the pedal. Hampson himself was in fine voice, but for all the polish of his delivery and the charm of his little speeches, which almost make me feel guilty for carping, his artistry seemed misapplied.

Future recitals in 'Discover American Song]' tonight, 6, 15 & 29 March, at the Wigmore Hall (071-935 2141)