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Review: Forget Springsteen - Argerich Was the Rock-Star in Town at Carnegie Hall

Review: Forget Springsteen - Argerich Was the Rock-Star in Town at Carnegie Hall
Sir Antonio Pappano conducts Rome's Santa Cecilia
Orchestra with soloist Martha Argerich. Photo Chris Lee

Though the classical music season is still young, it'll be tough for anything that lies ahead to compete with Friday night's performance at Carnegie Hall by Martha Argerich, who seemed to be having the time of her life, while showing total skill and control. The audience was hers from the get-go, stomping and whistling before she even sat down at the keyboard--as if they were at Madison Square Garden rather than this sometimes-demure palace of classical music.

This was Argerich's first concert on West 57th Street in nearly a decade and she chose an 'old friend' to accompany her: She's famous for her treatment of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto # 3 -and anyone who has their doubts whether that's an overstatement should have been at this scintillating, gorgeously measured concert, even when the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Sir Antonio Pappano, its music director and conductor, was not always an ideal companion.

Review: Forget Springsteen - Argerich Was the Rock-Star in Town at Carnegie Hall
Martha Argerich. Photo: Chris Lee

After the short, almost pastoral opening of the first movement, the work turns percussive and somewhat modernist, but Argerich took it all brilliantly in stride. She knows the piece needs no heavy breathing and she seemed almost relaxed and playful with her old friend Prokofiev. Perhaps the orchestra and Pappano (Music Director of the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, making his Carnegie Hall debut) found the hall's famed acoustics needed some getting used to, but there was a section where they seemed--at least to me--close to overpowering her.

(I found a similar problem with their approach to Verdi's "Sinfonia from AIDA," a longer, alternative overture to the opera, which opened the program. Toscanini's preference notwithstanding, I'll take the shorter version of AIDA's overture, thank you.)

The orchestra hit its stride by the second movement, with its demanding, high-wire act for the soloist, and played thoughtfully through to the end. But it was Argerich's evening--amazing in the variations that called for a wide range of her skills--and the audience went wild after the difficult finale. (That's no small compliment from a group that probably remembered clearly when she won the Chopin Competition in 1965 at 24.) The cheers were a tribute to her clarity of tone and bravura technique--crisp and elegant playing even when the composer seemed to dare the soloist to do otherwise. The pianist gave a marvelous encore from Ravel's Ma Mere l'Oye (Mother Goose Suite)--which was about as far from the Prokofiev as one could get in style and dynamics.

Those who couldn't be there in person are in luck: The audio of the concert, which was broadcast live, is still available on WQXR, while the video version (also shown live) can be seen free on the online streaming service for the next couple of months.

For me, the Italian orchestra was at its best during the last part of the concert, when it was firmly on its home turf: Respighi's tone poems Le Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) and I Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), two parts of the trilogy of works he devoted to the Eternal City. The composer had a special relationship with the orchestra--he was appointed as a professor at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia in 1913--which was the first Italian orchestra to devote itself exclusively to the symphonic repertoire and gave the premieres of these two pieces, in 1917 and 1924, respectively, with Le Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) coming in 1928.

At one with the orchestra, Pappano brought out a true portrait of the city (or at least what it was like a century ago). Filled with color and sunlight, the two pieces made for a delightful ending to the concert, though for many, Argerich on Prokofiev was the name of the game--and what a game it was!


The concert will be repeated at Kennedy Center's concert hall on Wednesday, October 25 at 8 pm.

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