Martha Argerich and the Royal Philharmonic under Charles Dutoit


National Concert Hall, Dublin, 29 April 20094 stars

Martha Argerich

A mesmerising performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major was the centrepiece of an all-Prokofiev programme by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with guest soloist Martha Argerich in Dublin on Sunday night.

Concerto appearances by Martha Argerich are increasingly rare, and as expected, there was a thrill of anticipation that greeted the prodigious pianist's arrival on the concert stage in Dublin that was soon renewed as enraptured appreciation as she delivered a characteristically passionate performance.

From the beginning of the wistful clarinet solo, it was clear that Argerich breathes every note and expression of the score, although she has the disconcerting habit of lifting her hands to the keyboard so late I was often afraid she would miss a cue. On the contrary, however, Argerich was always unmistakeably in command, the many tempo changes were superbly controlled and the Philharmonic as responsive as I have ever heard them.

Whilst Argerich's rather straight, flat-fingered technique may look odd, she sparkled through the semiquaver passage work without sacrificing weight and depth of tone colour in the lower octaves, particularly in the exuberant finale of the concerto.

Whilst Argerich rarely strays nowadays from the concerto repertoire of Prokofiev, Ravel and Schumann (she will perform both Ravel's Concerto in G major and Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 in the same concert at this year's BBC Proms) she remains such a consummate professional that this performance of Prokofiev still sounded fresh, even improvisatory, such as the contemplative L'istesso tempo passage of the final movement, which conversed beautifully with the winds. Indeed, such was Argerich's intimacy with the orchestra and score throughout the concerto that one could not help but wonder if she could have conducted the performance from the piano without any assistance from Charles Dutoit.

As much a celebrity conductor as Argerich is virtuoso pianist, I must admit I have never warmed to Dutoit as conductor, and this concert was no exception. Rendered almost redundant by Argerich in the concerto, his gestures and interaction were often perfunctory at best. However, the orchestra gave an impressive performance of the Love for Three Oranges Symphonic Suite, which opened the concert. Using a typically large Prokofievian orchestral scoring, the opera from which the suite is derived was premiered in Chicago in December 1921; the libretto, written by the composer, involves a mixture of pantomime and fairy-tale characters, witches and sorcery. The first movement of the suite, subtitled 'The Cranks', displayed some strong string playing, with particularly uniform bowing and good resonance that maintained hints of Prokofiev's dark humour, although phrase endings in the later movement subtitled 'The Prince and Princess' were lacking in refinement.

The performance of excerpts of Romeo and Juliet that closed the evening, suffered in comparison to the suite. Although the strings were again strong in 'The Montagues and Capulets', I longed for more swagger in the famous string theme, and for more raw fury in the 'Precipitato of Tybalt's death'. This, perhaps, is where Dutoit needs to exert more control, and aid shaping and balance in the orchestra. There were, however, particularly fine wind solos during the course of the evening, and excellent connection between front desks, which was communicated throughout the string section. One must hope that when Dutoit succeeds to the position of Principal Conductor in September, that the influx of younger players that have injected the Royal Philharmonic with the vigour it needs to compete with the other London orchestras is developed.

By Úna-Frances Clarke

The National Concert Hall launches its International Concert Season 2009/10 on April 29th

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