Review: Argerich and Dutoit in Montreal

Saturday, February 20 2016
Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montreal, Canada

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Martha Argerich, piano

Berlioz, Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 (1844)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1797)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911)
Ravel, La valse (1920)

They say that Martha Argerich technically never cancels a performance, because she never actually signs any contracts promising that she’d show up.  You know, kind of like how Canadian winters never promise to pull any punches.  So when one books a flight to Montreal in February, not only must one be prepared for the possibility of a last-minute substitute pianist, one has to accept that the weather may interfere with even the backup plan of settling for some poutine.

But, whatever other grudges I hold against life, tonight I was a lucky lucky girl.  For starters, Ms. Argerich showed up.  Nominally, the concert is a homecoming for Charles Dutoit, who led the OSM for 25 years before having some kind of fallout (and personally I do have a soft spot for the man who was chief conductor in Philadelphia during those formative years of my musical education).  The maestro got a rousing reception, but make no mistake about it, Ms. Argerich was the main draw.  That her name was barely a footnote on the promotional brochures was probably due to the orchestra management not wanting to jinx an already delicate proposition.  When she came out on stage, the audience led out an audible gasp and gave her such an enthusiastic welcome that she had to gesture the audience to stop clapping so that the music may begin.   As for the performance itself, it’s not often that I say this, but Ms. Argerich playing Beethoven is everything that one could imagine, and more.  The First is probably my favorite among Beethoven’s five piano concertos (and there is no bad one in the bunch), with a carefully crafted first movement, heartbreakingly tender second (right up there with the second movements of Mozart’s 23rd and Beethoven’s own Emperor as the Greatest Slow Movements Ever), and delightfully witty finale.  I’ve listened to many versions of the concerto by many a great pianist, but none of them has anything on Ms. Argerich, who struck that sublime balance between technique and interpretation, control and abandonment.  What’s remarkable about her, particularly during the second movement, is that she emotes exquisitely and openly without ever overplaying.  Where mere mortals come off as either aloof or undisciplined, Ms. Argerich’s playing is accessible, intimate, rousing, but also no-nonsense and never patronizing.  If there is a heaven, please let it be Martha Argerich playing Beethoven on a loop.  (But also, please let Ms. Argerich grace our presence on this earth for many more years to come.)

I didn’t make the trek to Montreal for the snow and slush, or, for that matter, the rest of the program.  Berlioz / Stravinsky / Ravel is typically a trio that I would only listen to if I were in a captive audience, which in this case I was.  But I’m happy to report that while I came for the pianist, I will leave with new-found interest in Berlioz and Ravel, and, if nothing else, slightly less fear for Stravinsky.  The Berlioz overture that opened the program was not unlike the Weber overture from my last blog post, as both featured soulful wind melodies (in this case, the oboe) and created a fully dramatic arc in limited lengths of time.  Stravinsky is one of a very few number of classical composers (the others being Debussy and Schoenberg) that I go out of my way to avoid, but tonight I actually found myself enjoying Petrushka.  I mean, Stravinsky to me is like Picasso: there are parts of his art that are almost familiar, but the realization of this familiarity itself, along with the components that are ostensibly uncanonical, is deeply provocative and even subversive.  It’s not music for relaxation, as I always feel as if I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  While I probably still won’t be adding Petrushka to my work playlist anytime soon, for the first time I felt that I was able to somewhat reconcile between the classically enjoyable parts of modern music and the expositions that promptly and purposefully deconstruct this enjoyment.  Speaking of which, I had always taken Ravel’s Valse as a straightforward waltz, but evidently it is actually a deconstruction thereof.  Upon closer listen, indeed the waltz theme takes on darker qualities as the beats go on, with the once harmonious and innocent theme gradually being consumed by shadow until it plunges into near-chaos yet eerily still maintaining the form of the waltz, which by the end was merely a skeletal vehicle.  Maestro Dutoit, 80 years young and having lost nary a spring in his steps, almost danced along, though one must wonder about the symbolism in concluding the program with this piece (and then playing Bolero, however a crowd pleaser it is, as encore).  Maybe he was seeking closure, kind of like how writers kill off main characters to prevent others from continuing their stories unauthorized.  I hope that he and everyone else found what they came looking for tonight.  I know I did.
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