When you talk to other pianists about Martha Argerich, a standard response is: we don’t know how she does it. And I was thinking much the same myself last week when she was at the Southbank, playing Prokofiev’s Concerto No 3 with the St Petersburg Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov.
Argerich is a capricious personality who cancels on a whim, so booking tickets for her concerts is a lottery – you never know whether she’ll turn up. But when she does, it’s an event. The RFH last week was packed, with long queues for returns. And nobody who made it through the doors could have been anything but dazzled by the strangely offhand genius of this woman in her seventies with battleship-grey hair but all guns blazing in her heart.
She sits at the piano like someone’s granny on a bus: you half expect her to take out her knitting. But instead come surges of intensely focused energy, from nowhere. Without fuss or bother, she creates a magisterial sound that’s big but not coercive, given lift by the sheer energy of the performance. It’s a demonstration of complete command. And when it’s done, before the last note fades, she gets straight up from the piano stool and walks away, as if to say (the granny on the bus again): this is my stop.
What’s happening in her head is anybody’s guess. All I can say is that she’s probably the most compelling and dynamic pianist on the planet, and her presence overshadows anyone she shares a platform with. I barely noticed what was going on with the St Petersburg Phil during the Prokofiev. But afterwards, they gave a soft, indulgently old-Soviet style account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5: music they can probably play in their sleep, and seemed to do so here, in a performance with no grit, no bite.
The deep, dark, grumbling double bass isn’t an instrument that leaps to mind as suitable for a recital. But it all depends on the performer. At a concert in the Hampstead salon series run by violin dealer Florian Leonhard, I heard someone who comes closer than most others to making the double bass sing – if not quite like a lark, at least with interest, agility and sophistication.
A young American called Nicholas Schwartz, he’s currently a principal with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. And his virtuosity spoke for itself in a programme of transcriptions – solo repertoire for double bass is limited – that featured Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, some Gershwin and (best of all) some Ginastera songs of shimmering beauty.
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