In what certainly can be described as a rare treat, the legendary Argentinian pianist, Martha Argerich, performed the Ravel Piano Concerto in G with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by the young Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in a series of concerts March 12-15.
I’ve always thought it would be interesting to attend each of the four concerts over a weekend to see whether and how the soloist, conductor and orchestra change over the course of the concerts, especially as they become accustomed to the acoustically sensitive and tricky Disney Hall and to each other. I don’t know how the first three concerts were, but Sunday’s showed a legendary pianist, an energetic conductor, and a great orchestra all in almost perfect sync.
I have looked forward to hearing Argerich in person for a long time. And what better work to hear her perform than the Ravel, which has become a signature piece for her since she first recorded it with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1967. In the ensuing 40+ years, Argerich has lost none of her pizzazz at the keyboard. She handled the lengthy trills, especially in the slow movement (Adagio assai), with precision; and she beautifully rendered the elegant simplicity of that movement. In the Allegramente and in the Presto, Argerich’s hands danced over the keyboard with the youthfulness of the 26-year-old she was in 1967. She dazzled the audience with her technique and artistry, bringing them to their feet as soon as the last notes sounded.
Argerich was brought back onstage for an encore and was joined by Nézet-Séguin in a piano four-hands version of the last movement (“Le Jardin Feerique”) of Ravel’s ballet for orchestra “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose). Only a pianist of Argerich’s stature and confidence could share the spotlight of an encore with someone else at the piano. But, then again, she has been sharing the spotlight with talented conductors, such as Abbado and former husband Charles Dutoit, her entire career. Nézet-Séguin held his own, covering much of the keyboard while Argerich handled the melody at the upper end.
Sunday’s audience was then treated to a second encore with Argerich playing the “Mazurka Op. 24, No. 2, C Major” by Chopin. After that, she finally had to take Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s hand and lead the orchestra offstage to silence the audience’s clapping and screaming.
The concert opened with a performance of “La Valse” by Ravel, a symphonic poem whose composition was interrupted by World War I during which Ravel served as an ambulance driver. “La Valse” was originally titled “Vien” (Vienna) and was supposed to be a tribute to that great city and the waltzes so intimately associated with it. But Ravel’s experience in the war probably changed his vision of it. According to composer George Benjamin, “Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.” Still, “La Valse,” a series of waltzes from the tender to the raucous, is richly and expertly orchestrated as one would expect from Ravel.
The concert concluded with a stirring performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, a work composed in 1937 and described by the composer as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” referring to Stalin’s displeasure with his opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Politics aside, the Fifth Symphony in D minor (the key of Beethoven’s Ninth and many other great symphonies) stands on its own as pure music. And as such, it has remained his most popular work.
In all three works, the 34-year-old Nézet-Séguin, who is artistic director and principal conductor of Orchestre Metropolitain du Grand Montreal and was recently named music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, showed why he is a rising star. His conducting was so expressive that if one was unfamiliar with any of the pieces on the program, they could have simply watched him to see what instruments or sections were supposed to play and with what dynamics. Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra with precise control through the full range of dynamics from the quietest pianissimos to the loudest fortissimos.
At the conclusion of the Shostakovich, the audience again rose to their feet, hollering not only for Nézet-Séguin, but for the orchestra that the Angelenos in attendance clearly cherish.