Chopin, Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat

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COMPOSERS: Chopin,Liszt
LABELS: Accord
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat
PERFORMER: Martha Argerich (piano); Sinfonia Varsovia/Alexandre Rabinovitch
This Polish recording of a concert given at the Warsaw National Opera in 1999 has been a long time coming over to the UK, but it’s been well worth the wait. Argerich is on inspired form in the Chopin E minor Concerto, producing playing of dazzling virtuosity. Her very first entry following the long opening tutti is like a tiger seizing on its prey, and from that moment onwards she never lets up for an instant. She’s equally well attuned to the poetic side of Chopin, too, playing with wonderful sensitivity, and with a natural sense of rubato that always allows the basic pulse to be felt in the left hand. And in Argerich’s hands the finale has a seemingly effortless lightness and spontaneity. There have been many fine versions of this work – among them EMI’s recording of the young Pollini, the astonishing 12-year-old Kissin (RCA), and Krystian Zimerman on DG (though with a rather souped-up contribution from the Polish Festival Orchestra). There has been, too, Argerich’s own studio performance with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Charles Dutoit. That EMI recording of the two Chopin concertos was my disc of the year in 1999, and it still sounds very well. But the voltage on this is newly released version is a notch higher; and accomplished as the Montreal orchestra is, the Sinfonia Varsovia has the music in its blood, and plays with greater passion and involvement. The recorded sound is good. No less impressive is the Liszt First Concerto, with double octaves thrown off at hair-raising speed, and an unfailing grasp of the music’s character and structure. Mozart’s Haffner Symphony has been included for the sake of presenting the concert complete, though Rabinovitch’s approach is rather hands-on in the earlier stages, and the performance doesn’t really get into its stride until the finale. But it’s the two concertos that count: no one who admires great pianism should be without them. The two Beethoven concertos with Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were recorded on separate occasions at the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara. It’s worth putting up with the excessively dry acoustic for the sake of the performances. Surprisingly, Argerich hadn’t played the Third Concerto for several decades, but if anything, it’s the finer of the performances. The great Largo is as deeply expressive as it needs to be, and the opening movement is full of individual touches. Most players, for instance, hold back the tempo for the arpeggios with which the piano makes an unexpected reappearance after the cadenza, but Argerich treats them as fleetingly and lightly as could be. Her account of Beethoven’s outrageous cadenza for No. 2 is spellbinding, too, and she dispatches the finale with dazzling virtuosity. Quite apart from the gruff recorded sound, however, these wouldn’t quite be my first choices for these works – Brendel and Rattle generate more subdued tension in the C minor, and in Kissin’s hands No. 2 really sounds like young man’s music – but Argerich admirers needn’t hesitate. Misha Donat