Bartok, Beethoven and Pärt

Martha Argerich

Last night we dipped our toes into the Manchester International Music Festival, attending a concert at the Bridgewater Hall featuring a very varied programme – Bartok, Beethoven and Arvo Part.  I was there primarily for the Bartok (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste) and Part (Lamentate), but most of the audience were there for pianist Martha Argerich, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, receiving several several rapturous standing ovations.

This was Alfred Hickling’s review in The Guardian:

The conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy writes in his programme notes that Martha Argerich is “both a poet and a tiger on stage” – though the great Argentinian pianist leaves audiences on tenterhooks as to which, if either of them, will turn up. An Argerich appearance is never conclusively confirmed until she is seated at the keyboard, so there was a palpable sense of relief at the Manchester International festival as she prepared to play – albeit not the piece that had originally been advertised.

Shostakovich’s concerto for piano and trumpet had been mysteriously ejected; in its place came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1, a staple of Argerich’s repertoire. Yet her intense frown was frequently broken by sudden beams of delight, as if her own fingers are still capable of surprising her. Some pianists aim for accuracy, others for freedom of expression: Argerich unerringly achieves both. Yet despite her reputation for unpredictability, she gave a generous, remarkably ego-free performance that included and inspired the musicians around her: the sublime interplay in the slow movement included a musical conversation that the Manchester Camerata’s principal clarinet, Fiona Cross, is likely to remember for the rest of her life.

It was fitting that the Camerata – the most underrated of Manchester’s orchestras – should have this honour, as their inspired musical director has a close artistic relationship with Argerich and was instrumental in negotiating her first appearance in Manchester for almost 50 years. Nor was there any suggestion that Takács-Nagy’s rapt performances of Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste deserved second billing. Both featured spare, understated artistry from David Kadouch, a winner at the Leeds International Piano competition; while no pianist in their right mind would attempt to blow Argerich off stage, Kadouch may just have succeeded in whispering her from it.

Bartok’s 1936 composition Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste began the programme. Before the performance, the conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy spoke of early memories of hearing his great grandmother sing Hungarian folk tunes to him, but how it wasn’t until very much later that he realised how much of this folk music can be found in the music of Bartok.  It’s an exciting piece, and Takács-Nagy revealed its exotic textures with great flair, as the percussion instruments and strings jousted. The interplay between the strings David Kadouch at the piano was excellent, too, emphasising the piano and percussion interjections with clarity.

Remarkably, after the interval many of the audience did not return, having presumably come just for the Beethoven. More audience impoliteness followed when widespread, unstifled coughing had to be silenced by Takács-Nagy turning to the audience and raising his hand in exasperation. Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, composed in 2002, is described in the programme note as ‘A post-modern versioning of a fully-orchestrated piano concerto’. It’s typically Part, a long arc of ten sections, each a variation on an initially-stated pattern.  It was apparently inspired by Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, Marsyas, on display in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern at that time.

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