Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3

Ravel: Piano Concerto in G

Martha Argerich

Berlin Philharmonic (Claudio Abbado, cond.)

album cover

Subtle Power at the Piano

Concert soloists are usually revered for their command of difficult material, or capacity for dazzling technical displays. Near the end of the first movement of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, pianist Martha Argerich displays a distinctly different kind of power: The ability to freeze the entire Berlin Philharmonic in its tracks.

The Ravel is a clattering pastiche, with echoes of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Argerich skips through a short solo passage, and when the strings re-enter, Ravel's score asks the pianist to provide crisp upper-register frosting for a series of pretty string-ensemble chords. But Argerich doesn't oblige immediately. She hangs back, forcing the ensemble to listen long enough to fall in sync with her rhythm, which is anything but obvious. Coyly, deliberately, she places each chord just a whisker behind where it should metrically go. Inside that split-second hesitation is a drama that cannot be notated, and Argerich makes the most of the "stolen" space: When the pulse returns, she has snapped all involved to a higher level of attention.

Such moments are an Argerich trademark; one joy of her recordings is hearing her seize upon the tiny gems other soloists trample over. Particularly when she's accompanied by an alert orchestra—as the Berlin, here conducted by Claudio Abbado, certainly is—her pauses and accents form an alternate reading of a piece, teasing out lyricism at every legitimate moment.

An enigmatic presence who retired from solo recording in 1984, Argerich didn't rely on sensitivity alone: The Prokofiev work, which is on the same disc, reveals her as a percussive, endlessly agile instrumentalist capable of summoning fury when necessary. She dispatches the demanding runs with lightness and ease, gathering clusters of notes into elegant larger shapes. This approach can make Argerich seem capricious, if not glib. Listen again, because it's not blustery technique, but a meta-mastery that defines her iconoclastic readings.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1996, Deutsche Grammophon (Recorded 1967)
Catalog Choice: Chopin, The Legendary 1965 Recording; Ravel: Piano Concertos
Next Stop: Leif Ove Andsnes: Grieg, Schumann Piano Concertos
After That: Van Cliburn: My Favorite Rachmaninoff
Book Pages: 25–26

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#1 from Michael Bevan, United States of America - 02/19/2009 4:41

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was a Russian composer who mastered numerous musical genres and came to be admired as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.

#2 from Visitor, around - 03/05/2009 2:42

The slow movement is one of Ravel’s great melodic gems, first presented as an understated wordless song and then elaborated with free-flowing linear elaboration and lush orchestral harmonies.

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