The greatest hit of 2014 was the combination of Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich playing scores by Mozart, Schubert and Stravinsky, months after their momentous come-together in Berlin, after decades of going their separate ways. One year later, the surprising mix of the mercurial Martha and the master builder Daniel again produced marvelous results, this time interpreting Schumann, Debussy and Bartók.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the Colón was packed at every level; I have very seldom seen the Paraíso with so many people. And on the stage were not only the interpreters but members of the WEDO (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim´s orchestra). They were privileged spectators not only of the two great Argentine pianists but also of the two percussionists of the WEDO that played in Bartók. Again I felt that it is grossly unfair not to identify the players of the orchestra, and especially when they are soloists.
There was an interesting matter: he played the so-called Barenboim piano, made according to specifications typical of those built before 1875. It sounded transparent and smooth in Romantic music but was also up to the strong projection of rhythm and volume demanded by Bartók. As Martha was playing in a very good Steinway, to my mind they blended very well.
There was magic from the very beginning: Robert Schumann´s "Six canonic etudes", Op. 56, originally written for four-hand piano but arranged by Claude Debussy for two pianos. It is rarely played; I can vouchsafe that the arrangement sounds admirably and seems by Schumann. In fact the Romantic German composer wrote just one two-piano score, the "Andante and Variations" Op. 46. However, his four-hand production is abundant: counting the "Canonic etudes", no less than seven scores.
One doesn´t associate Schumann with contrapunctic forms, but in these etudes he smoothly assimilates the canonic treatment with no rigidity and a lot of Mendelssohnian feeling. Curiously, it was written for a now obsolete instrument, the pedal-piano. Writes Willi Apel: "a pianoforte equipped with a pedal board, similar to that of the organ, so that the bass can be played with the feet. The ´Pedalflügel´ , which had but passing success, is known chiefly through the series of ´Studien´ and ´Skizzen´ which Schumann wrote for it (opp. 56. 58)". Nowadays it is played in a normal piano.
The players gave shape to the music though always with great beauty of touch and fluidity; this was not only a display of masterful technique but also of sensitive empathy.
"En blanc et noir" by Debussy is a title chosen as an allusion to the white and black keys of the piano (s). And it is a late work written in 1915, the period in which he wrote the Etudes and the sonatas. Apart from the short "Lindaraja", it is his only score for two pianos. The evanescent impressionism has been left behind in this music of strong contrasts and asperities, very difficult to play, with polyrhythms and polytonalities. World War I had a heavy effect on Debussy´s soul, and the dark second movement is a tribute to a casualty of it, Jacques Charlot, nephew of Debussy´s editor Jacques Durand. The virtuosic third movement is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky.
Argerich has long known this creation and she recorded it with Stephen Kovacevich. She and Barenboim responded to the particular character of the music and didn´t soften its hard edges. And if any proof was needed that their technique has lost none of its brilliance, this Debussy testified to the fine condition of Martha (74) and Daniel (73). I could scarcely believe that a half-century ago I interviewed her.
Béla Bartók´s 1937 "Sonata for two pianos and percussion" is one of his late masterpieces. In itself the texture is innovative. The percussion includes a xylophone that is often a soloist plus bass drums, kettledrums, cimbals, tam-tam, triangle and small drum. Although the composer later orchestrated the percussion parts, thus transforming the Sonata into a Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, the original is much better, a score of tremendous power and total coherence.
Argerich recorded it twice, with Kovacevich and Nelson Freire, and played it here with the astonishing octogenarian György Sándor. She has always been the most energetic of female pianists, and now she met with another inexhaustible source of stamina, Daniel Barenboim. In the outer movements the joint strength of attack was exciting and true to the text, but they knew how to be subtle in the slow movement. The percussion players were admirable at all times, giving the necessary context for the sound Bartók imagined.
They played just one encore, an arrangement of the exquisite "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky´s "The Nutcracker" Suite. And I was amazed by the feat of giving the effect of hearing celestas (as in the original) through grand pianos; the delicacy of both artists was unbelievable. Moot point: did I detect in a transition a moment of hesitancy? I wouldn´t swear to it.
The day before Barenboim and Argerich played the pieces of Schumann and Debussy, and the rest of the programme was given over to groups from the WEDO playing Schönberg´s "First Chamber Symphony" and "Sur incises" by Pierre Boulez. I wrote about these scores already as they were played also on Friday.
Daniel and Martha have been before the public for almost 65 years and are still completely relevant.
For Buenos Aires Herald