Some years ago I attended a performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1, a work I don't greatly care for, given by a young female pianist. At the interval, after the concerto, one of our self- appointed local culture vultures came up to me and confided that "women can't really play Chopin because they don't have the muscular strength." As the old Sunday scandal-sheet reporters used to say, "I made an excuse and withdrew," because I really didn't have the energy to regale her with the legion of great female pianists, beginning in the 19th century with Venezuelan Teresa Carreņo, known as the "Valkyrie of the keyboard," and continuing down to the present day.
For almost four decades now (I know it is ungentlemanly of me to point it out), the reigning queen of the keyboard has surely been Martha Argerich. Since her spectacular debut recital disc in 1961 (currently available on DG's Originals imprint), Argerich has been a formidable pianistic presence. Her triumph in the 1965 Chopin Competition underlined her arrival on the world stage. In 1965, Argerich recorded this recital in London for EMI. Shortly thereafter she was signed to another label and contractual problems have prevented these recordings from seeing the light of day until now.
But the wait has been more than worth it. Suvi Raj Grubb, legendary EMI producer who presided over these sessions, relates how Argerich, "fortified by gallons of strong, black coffee," amazed all present with the power of her playing. When, shortly after arriving and meeting the producer for the first time, she sat down at the piano and "launched into Chopin's Polonaise Op.53, I sat up in my chair with a long drawn-out 'Jee-sus' -- the balance engineer said 'Wow!.' If this was a sample of her playing, Argerich was quite the most formidable player we had ever come across."
It would be difficult to improve on Grubb's categorization; Argerich is indeed a formidable player, capable of bringing forth huge sounds form the instrument, yet without the tone ever coarsening. Her tonal palette is also remarkable, as is her control over detailed and difficult passages. Try the fabulously deft scherzo from the Sonata, or the thundering left-hand octaves (a notorious passage) in the center of the Polonaise for two very different examples of what I mean. Rubato is one of the most important aspects of Chopin playing, and Argerich's is so natural as to be almost indiscernible. The group of Mazurkas, central to Chopin's oeuvre yet often the most difficult to pull off successfully, is a delight -- fresh, spontaneous and totally idiomatic. The succeeding Nocturne is equally successful.
But the main attractions will be the three "big" pieces, the Sonata, Scherzo and Polonaise. Of these, the Scherzo is the only overlap with her debut disc, and in the intervening four years her control, power and conception of the piece all grew apace. Just listen to the stupendous opening chords, or her feather-light touch in the bell-like descending passages (from around 2:00 onwards). This is great Chopin playing. The Sonata and Polonaise also receive two of the finest performances I've ever encountered.
The recording is classic 1960s Abbey Road analog and, even on headphones, there is no discernible tape hiss. The piano sound is realistic and vivid -- and much better than the sound EMI has been producing at the same venue for Stephen Kovacevich's ongoing Beethoven cycle.
In short, this is one of the most distinguished Chopin recital discs it has ever been my pleasure to hear. At 52 minutes and change, it is not overgenerous, although the average LP in the '60s contained less music, and I imagine that at least one of the shorter pieces would have been left on the studio shelf had it been released at the time. But Argerich is one of our century's great pianists, and this disc represents her at the very pinnacle of her astonishing powers.
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