Martha Argerich Collection 2: The Concerto Recordings

Martha Argerich (DG 477 8124)

9 September 2009 4.5 stars

ArgerichA year after volume one of Deutsche Grammophon's Martha Argerich collection, the release of volume two gathers together all her concerto recordings for the label. We're obviously missing some of her best-known recordings – I'm thinking primarily of the legendary Rachmaninoff Third that was recorded for Philips – but this collection still includes one gem after another.

Argerich's playing, of course, is consistently breathtaking, as on the solo recordings in volume one, but the results are more consistently satisfying in these collaborative efforts. The 'original jacket' concept doesn't quite work as well, here, however, since several of the recordings were originally released with non-concerto couplings. As it is, then, we have the original art-work with additional concertos tacked on: her 1994 Tchaikovsky First with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, is appended to her recordings of Shostakovich (the first concerto) and Haydn (the D major concerto Hob. XVIII:11); her earlier Tchaikovsky with the RPO and Dutoit has the bonus of an infectious recording of Mendelssohn's double concerto, with Gidon Kremer. After her remarkable recent performance at the Proms, the Ravel concerto, too, appears twice, first in its original coupling with Prokofiev's third – her first concerto recording, from 1967 –  and then a remake, again with Abbado, from 1984, appended to the earlier programme of Chopin's and Liszt's first concertos.

It's a slight shame, perhaps, that the original programmes were not preserved, but that's but one petty concern regarding a beautifully presented set that, after all, contains one magnificent recording after another. So many of the older performances have become part of the standard catalogue that the set gives us a welcome opportunity to hear them again in something approaching their original context. Her early Ravel and Prokofiev have lost none of their power and allure, while her Chopin (the first, as already mentioned, with Abbado; the second with Rostropovich, coupled with the Schumann) has a youthful exuberance and impetuosity which, for better or for worse depending on one's personal taste, is missing from her later EMI remake with Dutoit; listen, for example, to the way she takes off at the triplet figurations in the finale of No.1.

The set also includes her recent recording, again with Abbado but this time with his Mahler Chamber Orchestra, of Beethoven's second and third concertos. This disc was rightly praised to the skies on its release and, for the mixture of Argerich's astonishing authority, passion and power and Abbado's high-class accompaniment, remains one of the great concerto recordings in any repertoire. Her earlier coupling of the first and second, with Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Philharmonia, doesn't quite reach the same level but is still remarkably fine.   

There are fireworks and poetry a-plenty in the recording of Liszt's E flat concerto – from 1968 – and the two versions of the Tchaikovsky. The first might have support from the RPO that can sound a little perfunctory, but has a wonderful lightness in the opening movement, in particular, while the second is a high-quality affair through and through, with accompaniment from Abbado and the BPO of unusual refinement. The Shostakovich (with Guy Touvron as trumpet soloist) is robust and sensitive by turns while few pianists have made such a strong case for Haydn's neglected concertos as Argerich does here. Meanwhile, her Schumann is forceful and virtuosic even if, at times, it misses some of the work's innigkeit.

As with the previous release in the series, the quality of the performances is more or less assured and while there is some variety in the recorded sound, even the earlier recordings have scrubbed up remarkably well, despite some slightly clangy pianos (that used in the Schumann and Chopin with Rostropovich could have done a bit more tuning). Such is the force of Argerich's musical personality that few of these performances could have the dubious distinction of 'library recommendation' bestowed upon them, but as records of Argerich's uniquely compelling artistry they undoubtedly deserve a place on any music lover's shelf.

By Hugo Shirley