If It Claques Like A Duck
Hector Berlioz: Rob Roy Overture
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka
Martha Argerich (piano)
Charles Dutoit (conductor)
When outgoing executive director Franz Xaver Ohnesorg announced the Carnegie Hall schedule for 2001-02, he stated that he was most proud of his negotiations with pianist Martha Argerich, whom he had only recently convinced to contract for eight concerts in their “Perspectives” series of featured artists. Xaver was especially pleased because this notoriously (diffi)cult figure did not even like to commit to an appearance a month ahead of schedule. The knowing snickers from that press conference have since rung true, as Madame cancelled all but one of her first half of promised dates (although, to be fair, she did substitute on short notice for her ailing comrade Nelson Friere once last fall). Now the spring round is upon us and the “Where’s Martha?” game may begin. Ironically like many of her devoted worshipers, I have never actually heard her perform live before but have certainly been regaled with tales of her previous exploits, which seem to concentrate equally on hair styles and platform demeanor as on her acknowledged musical expertise. The calculated dissemination of the details of her public life and persona over the years more fodder for the National Enquirer than Musical America, she has, while cultivating a Greta Garbo image, developed a hard core of adoring fans that has elevated her to the status of a Judy Garland in this town. There is a palpable difference in atmosphere surrounding an expectant crowd at one of her concerts, more like that which energizes the hall on one of those rare evenings when a female star of the opera graces the symphonic stage.
All of this carefully orchestrated publicity would be as tiresome as that of a pop “diva” if it were not for the conventional wisdom that this is indeed a great artist of the keyboard. The reputation for not showing up has degenerated over the years from the mysterious to the tedious. Even for this concert, there was a mini-cancellation: scheduled to perform the Chopin 1 (one of the reasons that I have never heard Ms. Argerich live is her choice of repertoire), she and her ex, Charles Dutoit, announced rather late in the game the substitution of the Schumann, setting up an interesting head-to-head competition with Helene Grimaud, another attractive female pianist who has become a past mistress in the arcane art of press manipulation (at a concert in Philadelphia a few seasons ago, the indulgence of the entire audience was begged so that Ms. Grimaud’s personal photographer could pose her in some supposedly “candid” shots with orchestra), who is performing the same piece here at Carnegie Hall next week.
After all of the hoopla, the execution was rather unremarkable. Performance history has not been kind to the Schumann, slowing eroding a refined and elegant work into a boisterous vehicle for virtuosity: exactly what the critic-composer was rebelling against with its composition. Ms. Argerich belongs to the camp that thinks of this piece as an opportunity to display her big sweeping gestures and Mr. Dutoit’s accompanying forces were approximately three times as large as the composer’s original band. Pushing the interpretive envelope, the pianist seemed to be playing that Chopin after all: every phrase was exaggerated for dramatic effect and all delicacy swallowed up in the whirl of flourish. Ms. Argerich found herself momentarily lost in both the first and third movements and, although she recovered relatively quickly, her rhythm was tentative throughout much of this rendering. Only that bagatelle which passes for an intermezzo in this misshapen piece was played beautifully, precious little reward for so much flailing about in the closet of Romanticism. Although a bit unfocused, the reading as a whole was not a poor one, however it simply did not deserve the six curtain calls to huge standing ovations that it received. Perhaps, like at the Oscars, these people were actually applauding for a lifetime of achievement. Predictably, many fans (including more than one critic) left the hall after hearing their goddess teeter on her pedestal.
The remainder of the concert was top drawer. Especially noteworthy was this version of the Rob Roy, led by a maestro with an actual affinity for the music (one of the highlights of next year’s Berlioz season should be Dutoit’s Damnation of Faust with the Montreal Symphony). The great Philadelphia strings captured that unique hollow sound of this idiosyncratic master (“asymmetrical, like the mountains”, Jacques Barzun once described it) while presenting such a rare work. I visited with conductor-in-residence Luis Biava before the program, and he told me that the Petrouchka this past weekend had been the most acoustically satisfying performance since the group had moved into its new digs on Broad Street. This was indeed a very colorful adventure, Dutoit taking on the role of master storyteller and emphasizing the timbral variances of the narrative so successfully that he actually elicited chuckles from the audience in spots before the tale turns ugly. He is particularly adept at navigating this type of kaleidoscopic landscape (the day after his October Berlioz, he plans on a complete Daphnis et Chloe) and must relish the company of such a talented posse. Even though they did not drop the tambourine to the floor to represent the death of the puppet hero, the percussion section supplied bags and bags of day-glo accent to the portrait. It’s a shame that more of Martha’s fans didn’t hang around to hear it.
Frederick L. Kirshnit