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Considering how many performances of the Chopin sonatas the musical great and good keep offering us I might have expected to find a set that approaches some theoretical ideal by now. The nearest I have yet come to that is from Cziffra in his 2-disc all-Chopin issue. I don't for one instant suppose that this evaluation will be universally shared, but it's the standard I go by although I'm open to other possibilities. The first thing I look for is clear individuality, and I doubt that any player shows more of that than Argerich does. She starts well (better than Cziffra does) and finishes badly, but the overall standard is 5-star material all the same. Music-lovers who have been around for a while know what to expect from her by now, and she gives it to us without compromise in the B flat minor. The opening phrase is bold and declamatory, the first two movements are torrential, and I am completely convinced by them. There are other ways of doing them, but as Serkin used to say to his pupils `It has to be one thing or the other'. There's no way of getting the best of every world. In particular she even outdoes Cziffra in one respect - the handling of the big repeated chords at the end of the exposition without strain - where up to now he had seemed to me to lead the field. It says a lot for her performance that I actually welcomed the first movement repeat, I think for the first time in my life. In the strange last movement only three performances seem to me outstanding - Michelangeli, Cziffra and now Argerich, each as different from the others as can be. Michelangeli is deep-toned, gliding and hardly human. Cziffra is cold and cheerless beyond words, with a sudden eruption near the end, the authority for which I would like to know. Argerich increases the volume at the same point, although not in the hair-raising way Cziffra does. Her reading is ghostly, and I was spellbound by it. The funeral march is a piece that I have never liked, and that is really where Cziffra scores. Neither of them, thank goodness, makes the repeats - Michelangeli makes every last one and the thing is interminable, even played by him. Argerich's tempo is distinctly fast, not so far as I recall quite as fast as Rachmaninov's but fast enough to make it tolerable. What Cziffra achieves is the miracle of making it interesting, with the melody-monotone sharply distinguished from the trudging chords, and that alone delivers him a narrow win on points when I'm the referee.
In the B minor the issue is a lot more clear-cut to me. Argerich delivers a lively and strong account of the opening movement, with the repeat once again observed. I'm not sure to this day that anyone has ever done this movement in general better than Rubinstein. There is a passage quite near the start where the left hand comes swarming up menacingly from deep bass until the music flowers out in euphony that is better done than I ever heard. There is another sequence near the end of both exposition and recapitulation where a short theme is given first quietly and then in a full-toned ornamented variation, and Rubinstein draws from the latter one of the loveliest sounds I ever heard from the instrument. Against this there is the problem of what to do with the first half of the development section. With Rubinstein there is almost a sense of relief when he gets that passage over and done with, and I feel something similar about Lipatti's treatment of it. Argerich seems determined to `do something' with it, and I sense she may have an uneasy feeling that something needs to be done, that it can't just be left to speak for itself. Now just listen to Cziffra -- he sails through it with a sublime naturalness, and for once the entire development section coheres as a unity. It's much the same story with the trio of the scherzo. Here Argerich may have felt that there was nothing that could be done, and the passage is dry and uninteresting, as it often turns out. The possibility of that never even seems to have occurred to Cziffra. Argerich takes the main sections of the movement at a rocketing speed, much as Pollini does. Cziffra's tempo is only a minuscule fraction slower, but the difference in sheer quality from either of them is enormous and the dazzling glitter of it is simply wonderful, out of their class. In the slow movement I would say Argerich is far too emphatic in the opening phrase, but much more importantly she plays the berceuse theme exquisitely. The problem here again is with the self-repeating phrases that follow, which don't fully hold my attention from her, as they don't from most players. When one sees Cziffra discussed it's generally a matter of his virtuosity, but here more than in the other two passages I've instanced there is something else that seems to me almost more significant about him - a sublime innocence and simplicity, thoroughly characteristic of him if people were only noticing, that marks a true child of the gods.
But oh dear me the last movement! It is a `galop', and the `presto' is qualified by an important `ma non tanto'. Is Argerich in for some speed-record? We know what wonderful fingers you have dear lady, but Lipatti and Cziffra and Pollini have those too, and they have more sense than to play the movement like this. The scripture tells us that there is a creature that can outpace a galloping horse, and it is the ostrich. However God hath deprived her of wisdom neither hath He imparted to her understanding, and she makes a bad role-model.
As a makeweight there is the C# minor scherzo. This is played with despatch as one would expect, but for me in this piece there is Horowitz and there is everyone else, even Argerich. Criticisms or none, I still have no problem with giving a qualified 5 stars to another welcome recital from a truly great and truly individual artist who will not, she tells us, be giving us any more solo work now. I am all the more grateful for what's available.
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Certainly one of the most gifted pianists of all time, Martha Argerich creates energy and excitement at every concert or in every recording. This recording of the Sonata Op 35 from the mid 1970's remains active in much iteration from DG. I wish Martha would re-record the sonatas and traverse the ballades, scherzi, nocturnes, etc. also. What the artist/repertoire people are doing at DG, other than watching re-runs of Seinfeld, is a mystery to me. Pollini and Argerich alone could keep revenues flowing for decades if they enticed them to record more. These great artists aren't getting any younger! Their devoted public would love to have recordings of Chopin, Scriabin, Debussy, Liszt, Ravel, Prokofiev et al for posterity. One way to improve media sales and decrease downloads would be to have these artists individually sign the CDs or the liner note books. That would make them collectable.
Regarding the great Sonata Op 35, Argerich gives one of the most intense performances I have heard. Recording 15 - 30 years before Uchida and Grimaud, she set the example of how the opening movement should be attacked. Considering her predilection for quick tempi, her dynamic control is astonishing. She rolls through the main theme's exigent statements and replies, while taking the subordinate theme from placid and innocent to complex and sophisticated. The close is inspired.
In the second movement she is molten in the scherzo. She takes the middle section with a delicate and refined romanticism. The funeral march is about the quickest on record. But, it is conveyed with depth and purpose. The middle section, which has been described as two angels talking while watching the service, is the best on record. I have always thought that Chopin might be factitious here. The theme is so simple that he might be implying that the idea of an afterlife could be illusory at best; folly at worst. However, Argerich's performance will convince anyone that the composer was sincere and not insinuative. In her hands, this theme projects a view of peace and serenity. The finale is the most incisive I have heard. I have always thought that this movement might be Chopin's aural depiction of Canto III from the Inferno of Dante's Divine Comedy. Argerich's rendering of this inscrutable movement makes a compelling case.
Sonata Op 58
Composed in 1844 and published in 1845, the Sonata Op 58 in B Minor is Chopin's largest work for piano solo. It represents one of the great intellectual achievements of the Romantic Movement. In fact, it serves as an emphatic vindication for the so-called master of the miniature. Like its predecessor, this work is a worthy heir to the great sonatas of Beethoven. Chopin remains faithful to the basic sanctity of the form while expanding its technical and esoteric paradigm. However, unlike the Sonata Op 35, passion is more controlled. Emotional expression is manifested through cerebral probity and musical acumen. In addition, Chopin references historical elements in combination with his own distinctive style.
The opening movement's massive architecture is redolent of Beethoven.
The contrapuntal passages recall Bach. The beautiful, first subordinate theme is the apogee of bel canto.
The fleet, ephemeral scherzo is Chopin's advancement of those by Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
The ruminating third movement is one of the composer's most original, elegiac offerings. It defies antecedence and imitation.
The finale, presto non tanto, is one of the landmarks of virtuoso piano writing. Chopin's supreme mastery of the instrument generates a spectacular and triumphant conclusion.
Argerich has recordings for DG and EMI in circulation. I prefer this one, but I think her affinity for speed tends to detract from this great work. In the massive opening movement, the Main Theme loses its gravitas. The first subordinate theme, the beautiful bel canto is well done, but still too quickly. Subordinate theme II is more measured and comes off more satisfying. The close is once again too quick.
The speed of the scherzo is awe inspiring, but some of Chopin's nuances are lost. The middle section is well delivered.
The hypnotic third movement is taken at a much more sedate and reflective pace. While not at Pollini's level, Argerich is wonderful here--especially in the reprise of the Main Theme.
The finale is taken too quickly for my taste. And while the speed is impressive and intoxicating, the performance seems too cavalier.
I think the finest performance of the Sonata Op 58 is Pollini's 1986 account for DG.
Scherzo Op 39
Chopin's third Scherzo is believed to have been composed in Majorca during his nearly disastrous sojourn with George Sand. It was published in 1840. The Main Theme has a mystical and ritualistic atmosphere that seems to have influenced Saint-Saens and Dukas in their Danse Macabre and Sorcerer's Apprentice. In the middle section, the Subordinate theme provides a more sedate, ritualistic iteration and features some wonderfully original keyboard passages unique to the composer. The Main Theme returns but is abbreviated to a restatement of the Subordinate Theme. In the coda, the crux of this work, the Subordinate Theme gains an irrepressible resolve over a magnificent left hand accompaniment. It climaxes only to fall to a demonic whirlwind, which brings this work to an emphatic close.
In the four ballades and first three scherzi Chopin's codas provide extraordinary conclusions. The sheer concentration of power and will to resolution is unprecedented and remains unequalled in music for solo piano.
Argerich's supreme command of octaves makes her a natural for this piece. Once again the quick tempi deprive us of some of the pauses or breathing necessary to the work. However, her sheer power and virtuosity, especially in the coda, overwhelm all other considerations.