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 Recording of the Week  Martha Argerich's Carte Blanche

For almost ten years now I’ve looked forward to Warner’s annual collections of live recordings from the Lugano Festival, where legendary Argentine pianist Martha Argerich presides as a sort of den-mother, drawing together and energising the entire proceedings with her unique musical charisma and imagination. Now Deutsche Grammophon present something similar as the inaugural instalment of a new series of recordings from Verbier (there’ll be two volumes per year from 2016). Recorded live in 2007, it captures an evening when Argerich was given sole control over the artists and repertoire, with scintillating results.

Martha Argerich
Martha Argerich

Many of the personnel here (including one of Argerich’s long-term musical partners, the cellist Mischa Maisky, as well as her protégé Gabriela Montero, Yuri Bashmet and Renaud Capuçon) are also Lugano regulars, but none of the material here overlaps with the recordings from the other Swiss festival; following a barnstorming account of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio’, there’s deliciously abrasive Bartók, quirky Ravel, ribald Lutosławski, and more. And in the lone solo spot, Argerich takes centre stage with a performance of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood that captures the mercurial shifts from scrappy rough-and-tumble to dreamy exhaustion more than any I’ve come across in recent years.

For an artist who is almost as well known for her intensely private, almost reclusive nature, Argerich comes across as the most gregarious musical personality imaginable on these recordings, which burst with convivial spirit and the sheer joy of making music with true friends – in the best possible way, these performances give the impression of eavesdropping on an informal get-together, and remind me of the late-night (and usually red-wine-fuelled) ad-hoc play-throughs of favourite or newly-discovered chamber-music repertoire which inevitably used to happen on the summer orchestral courses which I so loved as a teenager. It goes without saying that Argerich and co. are ineffably more polished (and, I imagine, rather soberer!) than a bunch of Geordie kids up way past their bedtime ever were, but that sense of discovery and spontaneity is similarly tangible – none of these performances feel even remotely ‘phoned in’, though most of the artists here must have performed this repertoire more times than they care to remember).

Argerich has long since struck me as a sort of musical alchemist, and certainly everything and everyone she touches here turns to gold: I’ll confess that I’ve never been a signed-up member of the Lang Lang fan-club, but his partnership with Argerich in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite elicits playing of liquescent tenderness and mordant wit that I’ve never experienced from this artist in other contexts.

It’s a tall order to settle on highlights from such an embarrassment of riches, but other than Argerich’s mesmerising solo Schumann I think I’d have to go for her incendiary collaboration with Gabriela Montero for Lutosławski’s four-hand variations on the famous Paganini Caprice No. 24. I hadn’t come across this work before and Argerich and Montero positively revel in Lutosławski’s impudent disruption of this most familiar of themes. Montero is well known as an improviser of great imagination and panache, and the pair of them attack this five-minute piece with such spontaneity that I had to remind myself now and again that I wasn’t listening to something that was genuinely being extemporised on the hoof. Her tango-influenced improvisation on Happy Birthday, for the cellist Mischa Maisky’s daughter Lily, brings the set to a suitably uproarious conclusion.

A joyous, life-affirming set of performances where the whole is most definitely more than the sum of its considerable parts – A-list soloists they may all be, but these recordings are all about collaboration at its finest.

Martha Argerich: Carte blanche

Martha Argerich (piano), Gabriela Montero (piano), Renaud Capucon (violin), Julian Rachlin (violin), Mischa Maisky (cello), Lang Lang (piano), Yuri Bashmet (viola)

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC