DVD Review: Martha Argerich/Mischa Maisky

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Martha Argerich & Mischa Maisky—Luzerner Sinfonieorchester/Neeme Jarvi (Accentus Music)

The world’s greatest living classical pianist, Martha Argerich, celebrated her 70th birthday this June 5, and having beaten cancer years ago, she shows no sign that age has caught up with her. In fact, age can barely see her at all, she’s so far ahead, and that has always a trait common to her creative endeavors. After studying with the famed teacher and performer Friedrich Gulda (who made some daring forays into the jazz world decades ago that have aged quite well themselves), Argerich made a cannonball splash into the public eye with an award-winning recitals at Geneva and Bolzano in 1957, then Warsaw in 1965 and the ripples she made have continued rolling into the 21st century.

To commemorate the occasion, Accentus Music has released a DVD of a concert recorded in Switzerland on February 9-10. She is joined by longtime collaborator Mischa Maisky (born 1948), quite arguably the world’s greatest living cellist; they are backed by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra (founded 1806), with guest conductor Neeme Jarvi (born 1937), for a program that mixes old and new with seamless precision.

For the last 30 years, Argerich the musician has existed in two distinct yet still mostly overlapping forms—as the grand dame doyenne of the 88 keys in our modern world, and also as a major facilitator of the musical arts in multiple countries. In a sense, she could be considered somewhat analogous to women like Marian McPartland, Cosima Wagner or even Pannonica de Koenigswarter or Lorraine Gordon, all of whom played a role in developing the most important music of the past 100 years; Argerich is herself a beneficiary of their contributions. She has provided instruction, encouragement and her money to three generations of classical musicians, in addition to the priceless benefits of association with her name, whether in collaboration with Argerich or in conjunction with the various events she is associated with. Argerich serves as president of the International Piano Academy Lake Como, which offers top-shelf training for seven selected pianists per year, and as General Director of the Argerich Music Festival and Encounter in Beppu, Japan, which she founded 15 years ago. Her annual performances at the Lugano Festival are always noteworthy for the new talent she collaborates with.

Argerich has also proven a boon to the more non-musical aspects of the industry, especially in terms of recording. Whether done in-studio or live on-stage, the unique technical challenges involved in getting good sound from a classical session have helped lead the charge in the evolution of recording technology, particularly as it relates to a) the development of stereo sound on the records, and b) the structural features of the records themselves, as the industry moved from 78s to LPs to compact disc and beyond. The jazz world was doing similar work simultaneously, and the resulting methods were applied to other genres, thus making possible the extraordinary, world-changing sonic revolution wrought by rock and roll, R&B and soul.

A free agent from day one, Argerich has recorded for almost every major classical label, and many of the minor ones; only RCA-Victor andColumbiasomehow missed the boat. While it is unclear if the effect was deliberate, but she remains a top seller for all those labels, generating revenue that has allowed those labels to produce more music in an industry where most new albums sell a few thousand copies at best. Some of this material might not have been possible without those few extra dollars—what I like to call “the Norah Jones Effect” (as demonstrated with the resurgence of Blue Note Records). In this manner, countless artists have further profited from their connection to her.

In the case of Accentus, a fairly new label based out ofLeipzig,Germanywith only about ten DVDs out so far, the release of an Argerich disc is crucial to a strong start for the company. While they also carry discs by heavyweights like Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Ricardo Chailly, Joshua Bell, Pierre Boulez and Evgeny Kissin (some of which are previewed on this disc), there is only one Martha Argerich—no one sells like her, and it’s possible that no one ever will again.

While barely out of girlhood, Martha Argerich dove headlong into a classical music world that was then still populated with the giants of 20th century music. Leading orchestras were being conducted by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and others. The piano world was dominated by titans like Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter. New stars were coming along like Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Mitsuko Uchida, Van Cliburn and Earl Wild. She was, without question, one of the most beautiful women in the world then, but looks alone were not enough. The fact that she was so successful and so widely acclaimed amidst such a tough crowd attests to her skill, in particular her singular facility with the music of Frederic Chopin.

In my opinion (which is shared by others with infinitely more credibility than I), Martha Argerich is the greatest interpreter of Chopin’s music for solo piano than anyone since the composer himself. That fact will be the foundation of her legacy, but there is much more to her than that; she also reaped a mighty harvest from the seeds sown by the Russians Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, whose works were mainly popularized by Richter and Horowitz. She has worked effectively in everything from solos and chamber groups to symphony orchestras, and is among the most-recorded artists of the past 50 years.

As one might expect, Argerich and the camera get along nicely. Once notorious for canceling concerts, she has been filmed in performance almost every time she actually performs. Every phase of her career has been thoroughly-documented, and in recent years she’s been the subject of several excellent documentaries. She bears much responsibility for the very existence of a “classical video” market; most companies involved with such material have their own Argerich material available.

The DVD reiterates its star’s diverse interests and wide-ranging capabilities. The programme, which runs nearly two hours total, includes pieces by Antonin Dvorak, Cesar Franck and Dmitri Shostakovich. But the concert’s centerpiece is the world premiere of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s “Romantic Offering”, a piece commissioned and written for these specific performers; he had previously written a piece for Maisky’s 60th birthday, in 2008.

The orchestra begins the set alone, without the featured soloists, sauntering through Dvorak’s “Scherzo capriccioso in D flat Major, Op. 66”. Argerich and Maisky then arrive together—with the latter wearing an incredibly shiny, puffy silver-grey shirt—to begin the Shchedrin piece, which runs about half an hour.

“Romantic Offering” opens in a moderate, ruminative vein, with the soloists working through the piece in public for the first time, before plunging into a sprightly second movement; Argerich’s mastery of the keyboard’s high-end is on display, as Maisky bows like a Muay Thai fighter, with his wild, wooly white hair flying around like he’s playing speed metal—and perhaps he is, in a sense. Talk about aging gracefully! It appears that neither he nor Argerich have lost a step. The horns strike a chord that pushes the reset button, before the whole orchestra jumps in, Argerich leading the way. Thrilling stuff, and probably the DVD’s highest point. The third movement meanders, aiming for a mood that isn’t quite evoked; hard to say whether the composition falters here, or if the band doesn’t quite mesh as well as in the previous movement. My guess is the former.

Following a round of applause and flowers presented, the principals (Argerich, Maisky, Jarvi and Shchedrin) exit stage right, returning for a brief curtain call. The bits of backstage interaction are always fun to see, in part because one sees so little of it. After a break (either an intermission, or more likely a cut to footage from the second concert), the group returns to play “Sonata for cello and piano in A Major” by Cesar Franck. To my ears, it sounds almost like Gershwin in parts, if not Aaron Copland.

The set concludes with the infamously splendid “Symphony No. 9 in E flat Major, Op. 70” by another Russian, Dmitri Shostakovich. The piece was written in celebration of the Russian victory in World War II, but was apparently suppressed because the music was deemed too happy for the solemn occasion—typical Soviet-era wrongheadedness. It’s a delightful piece of music, and the orchestra is at their best working these playful melodies and martial rhythms; Argerich and Maisky are not present. The woodwinds get to shine here, with a bespectacled lady oboist the star of the first movement.

Seizing on the expanded capabilities afforded by the format, the DVD also includes about 20 minutes of bonus documentary footage featuring Argerich, Maisky and Shchedrin. Entitled “Behind the Scenes At a World Premiere”, it’s an interesting look at a side of the business rarely visible to outsiders, and a nice way to wrap up a performance. It appears that Argerich’s golden years might be downright platinum.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; July 21, 2011

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