I am going to go to Pianist Hell for the following blasphemy. (Pianist Hell is a place where one must repeatedly listen to Arthur Benjamin’s ‘Jamaican Rumba‘ in all it’s vapid forms and arrangements (Even youtube lists 140 results! The ending of this one is classic) while sitting on uncomfortable chairs amidst an overly enthusiastic audience of old ladies who keep saying ‘oh, isn’t that just love-a-ly?’)
But I will go there specifically as I am going to review a performance of Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto and am NOT going to fawn. That sentence already has some music lovers sharpening their knives and/or souping up their effigies of me.
In any case I was bound to approach Martha with a degree of caution. Although I have heard her recordings on a number of occasions, I am naturally wary of someone whose reputation far exceeds what I perceive it deserves to be. Not that I don’t think she is an excellent pianist, just that surely she is not the divine entity that quite a number of people I know insist she is.
Effectively that is the point of this post. Seeing beyond the worshipping for what the music really is on a case by case basis. Not forming an opinion before even hearing it. Using key-word cliches et al *shudder.* And of course this applies not just to Argerich and not just to performance, but composers and various other traditions as well, but I will deal with that later.
So I listened to the concerto. Both out of curiosity and as I’m currently relearning it. Overall it was very good, but technically nothing countless pianists have not achieved over the years: it’s not the most virtuosic piece in the repertoire. Good communication and sensitive control on Argerich’s part, (I admit I had expected her to vamp it up quasi-Rachmaninoff and was pleased she didn’t) but the Gewandhaus Orchestra was a lot on the insipid side. Rank and file playing the dots and what not.
The main issue I had with the performance was Argerich’s lack of enthusiasm. Despite playing it all these years I felt it was more like she was visiting some older relatives who only want to discuss their yearly rainfall, rather than exploring the nature of the piece. Maybe viewing it as the uniting medium that it was for Robert and Clara Schumann, and experiencing that same passionate love. Or with an introspective intensity and nervousness typical of Schumann’s music. Or even the uncharacteristic extroversion shining through at times. It demands ’emotional virtuosity’ someone once told me. We instead received technical and musical competence. bravo with a small B and no exclamation mark.
In this piece it seemed more like it was ‘just another performance’ by someone who has played it too many times and though it was good in the usual sense, it was unsatisfying in another. Substitute any proficient recording market it as Argerich and no-one would be any the wiser. But lo, that wouldn’t stop the fawning. I am completely certain that the intangible magic and uniqueness of her playing would still be found there in an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ fashion until it turns out it was not her playing. Hmmm. Now there’s an interesting experiment! In fact that’s what prompted this post. The scores of inane comments. Some of the gems:
“I really like her command over the whole orchestra. She is a strong pianist and person. And probable the greatest pianist of this time.”
“Oh Martha. Such command and fearlessness.”
Sigh. Well if she is ‘probable’ [sic] the greatest pianist of this time, I think we are in trouble. Of course there is no shortage of comments of this degree of vague inanity on the internet in any category of anything, but what is alarming is that these comments also come out of the mouths of so-called ‘educated’ classical music lovers.
It is painful that someone can rely on their reputation to command high demand, and also be able to treat audiences with such disdain (Argerich is a serial concert-canceller) and still have people saying that even mediocre performances ‘must therefore be good.’ To me her reputation is greatly at odds with what she produced here. I have no shame in saying I would prefer watching a less technically ‘brilliant’ and unknown pianist ravish the opportunity to be up there instead and show some real virtuosity of the emotional kind.
Congratulations are due to the audience in this instance who refrained from a standing ovation at the end. Save it for a truly moving performance – you will know one when you see it.
Clap, clap, clap. Yes. Next?