Twice on July 29 and 30 Martha Argerich played and Daniel Barenboim conducted the WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) at the Colón in an identical programme made up of two standards: Beethoven´s Second Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky´s Fourth Symphony. The first was subscription ("Abono Estelar") and the second non-subscription ("extraordinaria"). The second, in an important technological innovation, was seen on Internet.
In fact, as often happens in these festivals, there was a major change: it was to be an all-Tchaikovsky programme, with the First Piano Concerto occupying the initial leg of the night. For some reason, Argerich declined this choice and substituted it with a favorite of hers, Beethoven´s Nº2. A pity, for the Tchaikovsky evergreen is a great virtuosic challenge and it made sense to combine it with the Fourth Symphony.
Argerich´s tastes and fears are sometimes quirky. As is well-known, she doesn´t play the most mature Beethoven concerti (Nos. 4 and 5) and she approached Nº 3 rarely, whilst she interprets regularly the first two. She recorded Nº 2 twice (so did Barenboim as pianist, and he also conducted the orchestra for Rubinstein´s version).
By the way, it may interest you to know that there are two unnumbered piano concerti by Beethoven: one written at 14 and the other a piano transcription of the Violin Concerto (recorded by Barenboim). Of the teenager´s effort we have the piano part and orchestral cues; on the basis of the latter Willy Hess orchestrated it and made it viable; the style is of course completely Classicist.
I don´t admit the theory about the marked influence of Mozart or Haydn in the first two numbered concerti; for me, as happens in the sonatas of Beethoven´s first period, there are clear signs of the composer´s unmistakable personality. Although there are sketches of Nº 2 in 1787, he finished it in 1795 when he was 25 (première at the Viennese Burgtheater, the composer at the piano, Antonio Salieri conducting) but in 1797 he revised it.
The big question is about the cadenza; the one we have (for the first movement) is very long and its dramatic writing seems typical of his second period; it may be part of the revision, for Sonata Nº 5 is of the same year and is quite prophetic of what happened in 1798 (the marvelous sonatas Nos. 7 and 8, "Pathetic"). Anyway, it may be this cadenza that attracts Argerich specially, for thus you have both the first and the second periods in the same work, and the strong temperament of this artist has the opportunity to manifest itself.
Frankly, the orchestral statements at the beginning of the first movement disappointed me; they were veiled and a bit mushy, not clean, crisp and neat, as the music demands. But after the pianistic entrance the orchestra was better, and from then on the ensemble was reasonably good, whilst Argerich showed yet again that she has lost none of her magical tone and perfect articulation, each phrase finished roundly and magisterially. The cadenza was predictably exciting though a mite dishevelled. The lioness showed her claws.
The slow movement was sustained and beautiful throughout its long course. The final Rondo was wildly attacked by pianist and orchestra but after a minute they settled down and up to the final chords all went well.
The encore was a homage to the recently deceased Pía Sebastiani: the two-piano arrangement of Carlos Guastavino´s Bailecito, a favorite piece of hers. Martha and Daniel played it very nicely and at the request of Barenboim there was no applause. In other words, the second piano was there for only this definite purpose: two great artists playing in loving memory of another great one. Before, Barenboim explained his purpose to the audience.
The conductor isn´t particularly associated with Tchaikovsky, a very emotional composer. So I was curious about how he would handle the Fourth Symphony, undoubtedly an important work but one that can be quite blatant under the wrong hands. However, there is a 1997 CD by Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony (he was their Chief Conductor at the time) ; it will be remembered that this combination came to BA in a memorable visit. I haven´t heard the mentioned recording, but the knowledge of its existence was a good omen.
And indeed it was a very good version. The WEDO isn´t the equal of the Chicago (one of the Top Five of the world) but it is committed, professional and disciplined. Barenboim´s reading rose to the big moments, but what impressed me the most was the dynamic subtlety, the "pianos" and "pianissimi" and the well-graded "crescendi". Tempi were right in every instance (I don´t relish an excess of speed in the last movement, e.g.). And the "destiny fanfare" was brought home relentlessly, as it must be.
The first encore was completelty convincing: a refined version of that Sibelius small jewel, the "Valse triste". The second was quite a surprise: Barenboim presented a young conductor, Lajav Shani if I understood rightly, and it was him that gave us that wonderful Glinka Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmilla". Again I was happy that it wasn´t rushed; Shani, very energetic, maybe should moderate his gestures, but he is on the right track.
This was the only concert in the whole series that had no repertoire surprises; all the others have audacious choices.
For Buenos Aires Herald