CD Number: DG B0003109-02
Only her inner demons know for sure why Martha Argerich has, for at least the past decade or so, deserted a successful solo career to play a less exposed, more collaborative role in a series of chamber, two-piano, and concerto performances. Though some of the chamber and concerto recordings do indeed recall the incendiary glory of her solo playing, the two-piano work has thus far been consistently disappointing. It's not just that Argerich tends to bully her sometimes too agreeable partners (mostly Nelson Freire and Alexander Rabinovitch), but also that the resulting performances — relentlessly hard-edged and driven — sound ugly and tense — sometimes almost neurotic.
In Rachmaninoff's Op. 5 and Op. 17 Suites, for example, Argerich (with Rabinovitch) willfully ignores the genial, lilting spirit of these appealing scores. Instead, we're taken on a frantic roller-coaster ride that's exciting as hell — if you can somehow bear to listen to it. Even in Bartok's spiky Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Argerich (with Freire) gives us a bum's rush through the score, divesting the music of its haunting melancholy and mysteriousness.
Of Two Minds
In Mikhail Pletnev, Argerich finally has a partner who is not only equally strong-willed, but also — in both temperament and approach — her polar opposite. My collection permitted enough telling comparisons between these two pianists to suggest their enormous differences. Whatever the music — Tchaikovsky's First Concerto, a Chopin Scherzo, a Scarlatti Sonata — Argerich is more percussive and combustible, Pletnev more attentive to the shifting moods and colors, the inner life of the score. Which is to say Agerich plays in a modern, self-consciously brilliant style, whereas Pletnev takes liberties, and can sometimes sound like a "Golden Age" pianist who' has landed in the wrong century.
So there were at least two good reasons to pass up this disc — Argerich's dismal track record in two-piano performances, and her seeming incompatibility with her new partner. But I'm glad I chose not to pass, for this is the best by far of Argerich's two-piano recordings, and one of the more thoroughly enjoyable discs I've heard so far this year.
Pumpkins Into Equipage
For one thing, Pletnev's own transcription of Prokofiev's Cinderella is a major addition to the two-piano repertory. Though the composer himself arranged three fairly lengthy suites from the ballet for solo piano (opp. 95, 97, and 102), I've never been able to listen to them without missing the opulence and piquancy of Prokofiev's marvelous orchestration.
Pletnev has recorded the complete ballet with his Russian National Orchestra; and his transcription turns out to be less a "suite" than a concise but expressive reduction of the ballet as a whole that gives full weight to its imagery while at the same time maintaining a strong sense of narrative flow. The second piano adds atmosphere and color — a rich "orchestral" palette that captures the score's many shifting moods. Pletnev's score is nothing if not theatrical.
Pas De Deux
So how do these otherwise ill-matched artists fare as a team? Magnificently. Though the notes tell us that Argerich is sitting first piano and to our left, the collaboration is so complete and integrated that after a time there is no sense of individual contributions: the two blend into one unifed intelligence with four nimble hands at its disposal. Listening to the magical hush that opens the music, the lightly tripping figures of the gavotte, the sheer animal surge of the famous gallop, or the explosive final apotheosis (with both pianists using their fists to toll an especially terrifying midnight hour), you may well think that this must be what two-piano playing is all about.
Given the volatility of the Prokofiev, the restraint and intimacy of the playing in Ravel's diaphanous Mother Goose Suite comes as a pleasant surprise. Argerich and Pletnev (this time seated at the same piano) shape this utterly charming music with a delicate touch, fully responsive to its poetry and prismatic colors. There have been many successful versions of this suite, but none better than this one.
In the past, I have had reservations about the brittle, rather too bright sound that DG typically affords even its best pianists, but I have no complaints about the sound here. Recording engineer Rainer Mallard has struck a perfect balance between transparency and warmth: every detail registers, but in an altogether natural-sounding way.