Martha Argerich, piano; Claudio Abbado, Mahler Chamber Orchestra. DG B0003398-02.
Listening to Martha Argerich play anything is a joy. She possesses the ability to communicate the most ethereal and the most grandiose passages with equal authority. And her fingers must have extra digits in them the way she’s able to command a keyboard.
It’s a little odd, then, that I didn’t find her 2004 recording of the Beethoven Second and Third Piano Concertos with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra quite as appealing as I expected. Not that they aren’t appealing; they are, in fact, excellent. It’s just that maybe I expected too much, or maybe I expected something a little different.
What we get is a performance of the Third Concerto that seems more sedate than I’m used to, more reserved, at least in part. Perhaps this was the effect of having Maestro Abbado leading the orchestra because the seriousness of the approach doesn’t affect Ms. Argerich’s solo passages much. It’s just that when Abbado leads the introduction and bridges, things seem to take on a heavier, more high-voltage tone that I’m not accustomed to hearing from the more-sensitive Ms. Argerich. Compare, for instance, Kovacevich/Davis or Perahia/Haitink and you notice at least a slight difference in mood, a certain lightness and brilliance missing with Argerich/Abbado. On the other hand, you could also say that because the Argerich/Abbado recording is more serious, it is therefore their intent to make it more challenging and more demanding. Nevertheless, Ms. Argerich is as persuasive as ever, and Abbado’s accompaniment is robust, to say the least. Personal preference, as always.
In the Second Concerto, though, we find a more relaxed, more stylish, yet more spontaneous approach than in the Third. The Second was actually Beethoven’s first work in the genre, and it remains among his best. Argerich/Abbado reach down into it more deeply than they do the Third, with more conviction, and with a seemingly greater rapport between soloist and conductor. It is very fine, indeed, one of the best available.
The sound, unfortunately, doesn’t always help the atmosphere of the recordings. Abbado follows his practice of insisting upon live recordings, and while the audience for each piece is very quiet, one can sense that maybe the audio engineers applied a little noise reduction and even toned down the highest treble to keep things quieter and more subdued. Although the sound is remarkably smooth and dynamic, it doesn’t have a lot of natural, lifelike bite, the frequency extremes seemingly clamped down. The orchestra appears fine by itself and Ms. Argerich is fine by herself, but together her piano is too close and big relative to the rest of the players, and they all seem a trifle compressed. Then, the audience erupts into an inevitable burst of applause at the end of each work, which I didn’t care to hear, either. Oh, well.
Regardless of my nitpicks, these are still very elegant, very refined, and exceptionally well played performances. For fans of these two particular Concertos, the Argerich/Abbado recording should make a good alternative to what they already own. Especially the Second.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: