Prom 60: Vivier: Orion; Ravel: Piano Concerto; Prokofiev; Musorgsky/Ravel Pictures

Martha Argerich; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit

Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2009 4.5 stars

Martha Argerich (Photo Opus Arte/BBC)Focus in this concert was only ever going to be on one thing: an appearance by Martha Argerich. The original mouth-watering prospect of her tackling two concertos in one concert was, alas, too good to be true. Prokofiev's First might have been dropped from the programme, but for twenty-five minutes Argerich set the hall alight, first in an incandescent account of Ravel's Piano Concerto, then with a rare encore.

The great Argentinian's appearance, however, was framed by further evidence of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's resurgence. Their Prom last year under out-going Music Director, Daniele Gatti, was outstanding for its vivid, impassioned playing and Charles Dutoit takes the reins of a band in great health. Not afraid to set out his stall early, the conductor chose to open the programme with the UK premiere Claude Vivier's Orion, a work whose premiere he conducted some three decades ago in Montreal, only a few years before the composer's early death. It's a vivid and beautifully composed work that was performed with luminous clarity here. A long way off the stern modernism of several of his contemporaries, its melodic appeal and mystic atmosphere make it an effective curtain raiser.

It was with the arrival of Argerich on the stage, however, the concert reached another level. The famous opening whip-crack of the Ravel Concerto was like the starter's gun, as the pianist set off with unparalleled athleticism, accompanying a breathy piccolo solo. The uniqueness of her ability, however, to mix the most robust, powerful virtuosity with clarity and sensitivity of touch is part of what makes her Ravel so compelling. The opening movement didn't take long to ignite but was contrasted with the heartbreakingly cool beauty of the Adagio assai, time standing still as she spun out the endless melody in a gorgeous pianissimo, the capacity audience entranced. The Presto was despatched at a blistering pace – the piano's repeated-note passages just one of the more jaw-dropping examples of Argerich's prowess – putting the seal on what is surely one of the great performances of this Proms season. The RPO gave outstanding support with the woodwind, in particular, playing their part in a sublime performance of the Adagio, and they joined in heartily with the audience's wild applause. A further, all-to-brief flash of brilliance came in the form of a Scarlatti encore.

Following such an appearance was always going to be a challenge and, judging by several empty seats after the interval, some in the audience didn't feel anything could follow. Indeed, listening to Prokofiev's suite from The Love of Three Oranges, it was impossible not to ponder the what-ifs and pine for the piano concerto it had replaced. Yet this and Ravel's orchestration of Musogsky's Pictures at an Exhibition that followed are works in which Dutoit excels, and he caught all the humour and pungent colour of the Prokofiev one could hope for.  

Ravel's Pictures still exerts a stranglehold in the concert hall and since Henry Wood took it on in favour of his own orchestration its been a regular at the Proms. The jagged genius of Musorgsky's original is, without doubt, rather smoothed over but it remains a favourite orchestral showpiece. That's how Dutoit, conducting from memory, presented it, justifiably confident in the ability of his orchestra to shine. Principal trumpeter Brian Thompson was outstanding, as he had been all evening, and the woodwind were full of character, although with moments of scrappiness in the 'Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks'. The performance got even better towards the end, the opening of 'The Hut on Hen's Legs' brutal and exciting and the final 'Gate at Kiev' noble and stirring. In many ways, then, an excellent second half. However, nothing was going to erase memories of the true greatness of the first: this was Argerich's evening.

By Hugo Shirley

Photos: Martha Argerich (Copyright © Opus Arte/BBC) line

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