Far more impressive than pianist Martha Argerich’s impeccable mechanical abilities are her interpretive chops. Here, she’s truly in a league of her own.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
It’s maybe a bit surprising to consider but, given the right company, the elusive pianist Martha Argerich is something of a regular local presence: her appearance at Symphony Hall on Sunday was her sixth since 1979 (though first since 1990). The Rome-based Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, on the other hand, has only been to town once before, and that was in 1969. Its current U.S. tour with music director Antonio Pappano actually marks the group’s first time back on these shores since those waning days of the Johnson Administration.
To have both sharing the stage on Sunday was quite the coup for the Celebrity Series, whose current season exhibits few, if any, holes. Suffice it to say, Sunday’s concert of pieces by Verdi, Prokofiev, and Ottorino Respighi had just about everything one could ask for – but, above all, one of the world’s great orchestras and one of the greatest pianists since World War 2 playing at the top of their collective game.
Now seventy-six, Argerich’s vaunted technique shows no signs of wear or age. She’s as spry and athletic a performer as ever, on Sunday tossing off the furious runs of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 with dexterity and seeming ease. The consistency of her articulation – each note placed and speaking just so – was itself a thing to behold, whether she was playing rapid, cascading figures or teasing out the music’s gently lyrical bits.
But far more impressive than her impeccable mechanical abilities are Argerich’s interpretive chops. Here, she’s truly in a league of her own. I, for one, have rarely heard Prokofiev Three sound as poetic or filled with internal drama as Argerich’s interpretation revealed on Sunday.
There’s much light shining through its pages, to be sure: the outer thirds of the first movement sparkled and the end of the finale blazed. In between, though, came episodes of great mystery and tension, beginning during the first movement’s development and culminating in an altogether gripping account of the second-movement variations.
Here, Argerich was in total command of the music’s stark contrasts. The moments of plush lyricism were touching and soulful. At the same time, Argerich dispatched the movement’s spiky, fragmented writing with icy clarity. Yet both kinds of music (and Argerich’s approaches to them) were sides of the same coin: in this performance, the variations related to each other in a preternaturally organic way, their divergent styles and textures flowing with exceptional logic and complementary force.
While it was sometimes hard to take your eyes and ears off of Argerich, when you could, the Orchestra dell’Accademia was turning in a spectacular account of the orchestral part. From the tender clarinet solo that opens the first movement to the raucous frenzy that ends the piece and the many chamber-like interactions between soloist and orchestra throughout, Sunday’s was a performance of rhythmic vitality, kaleidoscopic color, and terrific excitement.
It was easier to focus on these qualities in the three purely-orchestral pieces on Sunday’s docket. The first was Verdi’s discarded “Sinfonia” to Aida. He was wise to put it aside: the “Sinfonia’s” a potpourri overture, essentially a medley of many of the opera’s big tunes, rather less novel than the “Prelude” he ultimately opted for.
Still, it’s a welcome curiosity, especially when played as vividly as by the Orchestra dell’Accademia on Sunday. The opening strains (which are shared with the “Prelude”) simply floated on air. The busier main body of the piece, which features tunes mainly associated with Amneris and Radamès, bristled with emotional energy and rhythmic fire.
The same qualities marked the ensemble’s readings of Respighi’s tone poems Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. The middle movements of the former – “The Triton Fountain in morning” and “The Trevi Fountain at noon” – were marked by fiery brass- and string-playing, while the closing one’s gently gleaming woodwind and violin figures cast a textural spell of extraordinary delicacy.
In Pines of Rome, which followed Fountains without pause, Pappano drew playing of intense energy in the outer movements: “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” jumped, kicked, and cackled with knowing abandon while the epic “The Pines of the Appian Way,” augmented by brasses in the second balcony, trod with inexorable momentum and overpowering majesty. The middle ones were marked by hushed intensity (“Pines near a catacomb”) and a combination of breathtaking warmth and stillness (“The Pines of the Janiculum”).
It’s sometimes possible to dismiss Respighi’s so-called “Roman Trilogy” (Roman Festivals is the last installment) as warmed-over Straussian huffing and puffing. There was no chance of that on Sunday, though: Pappano and his band played Fountains and Pines of Rome to the hilt; with the utmost intensity; and hypnotic, missionary zeal. It was as thrilling to hear as it was artistically convincing.
So, too, were the encores. The afternoon held three: Pappano joined Argerich for a warmly spirited piano-four-hands performance of the “Empress of the Pagodas” from Ravel’s Mother Goose after the Prokofiev.
Post-Respighi, Pappano led the Orchestra dell’Accademia in a bewitching reading of Sibelius’ Valse triste. Here we had Nordic cool meeting Mediterranean warmth and the results were enchanting: hardly (in my experience, at least) has this melancholy score sung with such passion or danced so nimbly. Its enigmatic, aphoristic character, too, came across (as a result) with striking immediacy.
Following the Sibelius was the final “Galop” from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Familiar as the piece may be, it’s quite the workout, especially for the upper strings. But this reading was no toss-off: everything was sensitively shaped and phrased with care. The ovation that followed was – as with just about every piece heard in the afternoon – raucous.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.