Prom 60: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Dutoit / Martha Argerich - Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2009
Proms Chamber Music 13: Alice Coote / Steven Osborne - Cadogan Hall, 30 August 2009
Martha Argerich is often described as ‘reclusive’, but a glance at her busy calendar shows, no, it’s just the UK she doesn’t care for. A recent visit to the Royal Festival Hall aside, she hasn’t played here for an eternity. So her appearance in Sunday’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Prom was unmissable, and not just for me. Every seat was filled and the arena was packed to bursting. I don’t think even the ukulele Prom was this well-attended.
The original programme seemed too good to be true – two concertos, Ravel and Prokofiev’s first. Sure enough, the Proms website announced a few days ago that lack of preparation due to illness meant the Prokofiev would be substituted by a purely orchestral piece (though with no further notices or announcements many in the audience were unaware of the late switch).
But the Ravel alone was worth waiting for. Argerich contained its Gershwinesque exuberance within chamber-like dimensions, conjuring a playful intimacy with her extraordinarily light and fluid touch. Its virtuosic demands were satisfied with carefree spontaneity, her skills seemingly limitless. Watch her and her fingers seem to plunge almost brutally into the keyboard, yet listen and you could believe they’re dancing weightlessly above it, teasing the sound out by charm alone. Her effortless languor in the beautiful central adagio made time stand still.
And there was more! Solo recitals from Argerich are a rare treat these days, but we got a glimpse of what might be from her encore, a Scarlatti sonata performed with the limpid gravity of late Chopin. And here was the real magic – rapidly hammered single note repeats where each note was coloured slightly differently. (Go to 48:35 on the iPlayer broadcast to experience).
Argerich ended a first half which began with an overdue UK premiere - the lush, knotted melodies of Vivier’s Orion, a Messiaen-like journey into outer space beautifully performed by Dutoit and the RPO. But I skipped the second – anything after Argerich would have been a let-down.
Earlier in the day, I went to a couple of the many concerts that the Cadogan Hall hosted over the weekend. Designed to showcase a large number of current and former BBC New Generation Artists in each, they were, inevitably, something of a mixed bag, with no-one given long enough to make much of an impression either way.
Just when I thought the highlight of the day might turn out to be Martinů’s slight but delightful Promenades for flute, violin and harpsichord, Alice Coote and Steven Osborne emerged to end the 2.30 concert with a selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Only four songs - Rheinlegendchen, Das Irdische Leben, Wo die Schonen Trompeten blasen and Urlicht - but she dove headfirst into each, so intensely committed and so acutely attentive to textual nuance that it seemed a lifetime of emotions had been laid out before us. Pity poor Steven Osborne who did his best with the half-hearted piano reductions. These songs are transformed in the full orchestral versions - for which (as she volunteered in a pre-recital interview) Alice Coote is open to offers.