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Old Wine, New Punch: Martha Argerich's Performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto at The Kennedy Center

(Publicity photo: Kennedy Center)

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.


The appetizer was Verdi's 12-minute Sinfonia to Aida, at one point intended as a new overture to the opera, but eventually discarded in favor of the less dramatic, four-minute Prelude Verdi had originally composed. Voluptuously layering two or three of the opera's main motifs, the work spotlighted the Santa Cecilia's radiant strings, especially a superbly resonant first cello. The fairly intense, unsentimental performance revealed a less cloying side to Verdi who, in preparing this overture, thankfully spared us the painfully orientalist moments of the opera's middle section.

Verdi's lush, Italianate textures threw into sharp relief Prokofiev's concerto (composed 1917-1921), in which the pared-down influence of Stravinsky is vaguely felt but never heard (rarely does the moderately-sized orchestra play tutti). Occasionally commentators describe Prokofiev's Third as "neoclassical" but the label hardly does it justice. Though the concerto immediately follows Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony in his listing of opus numbers, that work, for all its surface pleasures, is essentially an ironic pastiche of Haydn, wittily abbreviated and channeled through postromantic harmonies.

There's nothing borrowed or facile about the concerto, however. Like Stravinsky's Petrushka or Holst's The Planets, Prokofiev's Third is one of those early 20th century works whose overfamiliarity has numbed us to its startling originality. Following the example of his Second Piano Concerto, the Third deliberately lacks a self-contained slow movement, instead juxtaposing fast and slow episodes with impish alacrity and through instrumental surprise. Unlike those over-orchestrated behemoths of Rachmaninoff—whose influence Prokofiev had cast aside by the early 1910s—Prokofiev's Third evinces both a virility and a mystique that transcends the damning label of "warhorse".

Stravinsky eventually criticized Prokofiev for endlessly trotting out the concerto on his own concert tours, but the work's originality was hardly lost on Prokofiev's younger contemporaries. The opening's languorous andante clarinet motif anticipated the opening twirl of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (orchestrated by Ferde Grofé in 1924, three years after Prokofiev's work premiered). The Englishman John Ireland—a second-rate composer at best—shamelessly plagiarized the climax of Prokofiev's Third for his 1930 Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, which was somehow well-received despite the plagiarism. Prokofiev's insistence throughout the Third on the keyboard's sparkling, bristly upper registers echoes in the tintinnabulatory burlesques of Shostakovich's First and Second Piano Concerti and in the clattering parts of later concerti by Kabalevsky and Khrennikov. Across the Atlantic, Prokofiev's pianistic influence can be felt in the middle and late works of George Antheil (who openly acknowledged the debt), in the numerous toccatas of Alberto Ginastera, and in Samuel Barber's deliberately Russian-inflected—and Pulitzer-winning—Piano Concerto of 1962.

Argerich had mastered Prokofiev's Third decades ago, and her performances—spiky, unromantic, occasionally thundering and yet carefully intelligent—have been fairly consistent over the years. Apart from the Third, Argerich has—rather unaccountably—only recorded Prokofiev's youthful, Lisztian First Concerto, a showy graduation exercise designed to addle his reactionary professors at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Why Argerich has avoided the truly epic Second (with its infamous six-minute cadenza) or brittle, nearly cubist Fifth, a high mark of the composer's Parisian years, remains a mystery, at least to me. Nor has she recorded Prokofiev's two greatest piano sonatas, the 6th and 8th, limiting herself to the more canonical Seventh, with its famous allegro precipitato. Prokofiev's nine sonatas, five concerti, and 30-plus miscellaneous piano works have withstood far lesser talents; hopefully, there's still time for Argerich to traverse the odder corners of his output.

Argerich's approach to Prokofiev's Third Concerto seems, in part, a response to work's rich recorded history, which includes renditions by Van Cliburn, Janis, Weissenberg, Kissin, Ashkenazy, Graffman, the lumbersome Toradze and, back in 1932, Prokofiev himself, just to name a few. Allowing for slight changes in articulation from one performance to the next, Argerich has always delivered percussive, razor-sharp renditions, carefully observing the accent marks abundant in Prokofiev's scores. Her tempi are aggressive but never hysterical or crude, as is the case with some virtuosi (consider Weissenberg's hurried, harried recording of Prokofiev's Third Sonata or the countless prodigies who treat the Seventh Sonata's precipitato like a steeplechase).

Argerich, in fact, seemed to follow the logic of an innate (or at least internalized) tempo. As soon as the first movement's andante gave way to the piano's introduction (allegro), her foot began to bounce unconsciously and beat out a rhythm. Argerich's fierce digital attack—a hallmark that also distinguishes her approach to Ravel's Piano Concerto in G—was urged on by alert accompaniment (a somewhat tepid bass drum notwithstanding). Pappano emphasized the slashing, percussive qualities in the string writing, and the castanets, which on record usually chirp like crickets, here clapped angrily over Prokofiev's often spare orchestration. In the first movement's slow central episode (dolce), she carefully observed the written dynamic markings: many pianists play the interlude more or less piano throughout, but she followed the score, growing an initial piano to a subtly more aggressive mp before reverting to pensiveness. Indeed, Argerich's insights were most evident in the slower moments, when one could hear her consciously accentuate the contrapuntal finger-work in each hand—an approach also found in her 1960 recording of Prokofiev's groundbreaking op. 11 Toccata, a work lesser pianists tend to muddy.

The second movement, a wide-ranging theme-and-variations, animates a slow, winding theme in the woodwinds (andantino) with a pulsatile accompaniment in the strings (a ploy Prokofiev also used in the final movement of his First Violin Concerto). In the same tempo, there begins a spare piano part most soloists take plaintively. Argerich does too, but in the even sparer passage that follows, marked leggerissimo (extremely lightly), she again pays attention to contrasting themes, separately articulating the opposing movements in each hand. Likewise, in the movement's fourth variation—played pp, and marked delicatissimo and then (oddly) freddo—she evinces a "searching" quality, not a predetermined one, as right and left hand again fight for tonal dominion. Argerich invests the stirring fifth variation, a galloping allegro giusto featuring enormous leaps and thundering chords up and down the keyboard, with extra power by paying strict attention to the tempo indication—a strict, steady allegro, yet not so fast as to dilute an excitement that mustn't be rushed.

In the final movement, Prokofiev pulls out all the stops. Opening with a spirited allegro ma non troppo and escalating into a more frenzied turbulento, Prokofiev throws off widely spaced, crashing chords that recall the second movement's allegro giusto stampede. Again, Argerich's tempi are judicious, never overfast. In the movement's lengthy central episode, Prokofiev finally gives the audience what they (presumably) want from a piano concerto: an ardent, moonlit slow movement. Unsurprisingly, Prokofiev delivers the moonlight with a wink, crafting a serenade (dolce and espressivo) that is lovely to the point of parody and then repeating it endlessly with a heavy blanket of strings, as the piano part provides various decorations, patter, and cascading scales.

At the section's climax, the music suddenly changes from dolce to pesante ("ponderously heavy"), thickening the sweetness into a deliberate overstatement. Surely, this passage was intended to caricature the slow melodies in Rachmaninoff's over-popular Second Piano Concerto (premiered in 1901), but it's a testament to Prokofiev's wit that the passage works bivalently, as both a gorgeous swoon and as a parody of slushy romanticism. Within that pretended romanticism, Argerich punches out Prokofiev's weirdly syncopated beats, reminding us of the joke—and reminding us too, that, like Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, the concerto is actually more dissonant than it sounds. In the concerto's heart-in-the-throat finalé—two of the most exciting minutes in all of written music—Argerich handled the cascading double-note arpeggios (which require the performer to straddle two adjacent keys with each finger) not only effortlessly but as written: with spirit (brioso) but not with a hammer.

After shrugging off endless rounds of applause, Argerich returned to the stage with Pappano for a delicate encore: a four-handed piano arrangement of Ravel's "Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas," from his Mother Goose Suite. Ravel's pseudo-oriental (or post-oriental?) pitter-patter is easy to take for granted, but exquisiteness never comes easily. As I listened to the three-and-a-half-minute fragment, Ravel's painstaking compositional effort seemed to fly up from the keyboard—precious few composers have ever composed so meticulously.

Most surprising, however, was the program's second half, which represented Respighi's 1916 Fountains of Rome and 1924 Pines of Rome (1928's Roman Festivals, the contrapuntally thorny climax to his Roman Trilogy, is sadly programmed less often). Even in 2017, Respighi remains the only early 20th century Italian who regularly appears on concert schedules, perhaps because—unlike his younger compatriots Ildebrando Pizzetti and Alfredo Casella—he did not go to any lengths to ingratiate himself with Mussolini's regime. For concertgoers, Respighi's incomparable mastery of orchestration (he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov) is more than enough to ensure his legacy. Pappano's approach (never explained to the audience) was unique, however. I used above the verb "represented", not "presented", because he joined Fountains and Pines in a fluid amalgam, played entirely attacca, without pauses either between the works' individual movements or between the works themselves. The intoxicating result elevated the music beyond the superficial picture-painting typical of tone poems. Ignoring the temporally contrived breaks between each noble fountain or ancient pine, Pappano embroiled the listener in a boundless flow of impressions, natural and architectural. The watery skirl of the fountains' flutes seeped into the great brass of weathered trees, from which emerged the prerecorded nightingale song of "The Pines of the Janiculum"—a moment prefiguring the tape-recorded fauna incorporated by Hovhaness (in And God Created Great Whales) and Rautavaara (in Cantus Arcticus) two generations later.

Much as compressed recordings usually iron out Prokofiev's jagged edges, ubiquitous classical radio broadcasts of Respighi's Roman works have tended to impoverish their Straussian enormity. In the uncompressed, unmediated spaces of the concert hall, Respighi's vast forces—including bells, piano, pipe organ, ratchet, glockenspiel, three pairs of cymbals, and auxiliary brass—sounded as engrossingly atmospheric as Fritz Reiner's legendary Living Stereo recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Any conductor can make fortissimi rattle the seats, but Pappano also ensured that the pianissimo passages fully resounded; many conductors forget that "piano" means soft, not quiet (a vital distinction). So lush was the Respighi that, about halfway through, I began to wonder if a composer could be guilty of over-indulging ecstasies of orchestral color. But any thoughts of asceticism were soon overwhelmed by an avalanche of sound, as antiphonal brass positioned in multiple balconies joined bells, organ, and percussion for the monumental climax, "The Pines of the Appian Way". Respighi, in fact, indicates these antiphonal effects in his score, which calls for distant brass parts to be played by buccine, the thinly tubed, serpentine horns the ancient Romans used for heraldry (as is the usual practice, Pappano substituted conventional brass). Heard live, the effect is revelatory, worthy of the greatest masterstrokes of Berlioz or Wagner.

There were two encores. For the first—"something a little quieter", as Pappano said—the orchestra exhumed Sibelius' 1904 Valse Triste, a work that bores me to tears but which aroused considerable sympathy in the audience. To avoid ending the evening with a sad, wistful waltz, Pappano returned to the podium and immediately cut to the gallop of Rossini's William Tell. In most other concerts, the Rossini would have been the jokey aftermath of a perfunctory evening; here, it was the slightest bon-bon after a satiating repast.

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