In Piano Duets, Schubert Sings, ‘Rite’ Isn’t Quite

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich performing at the Philharmonie in Berlin in April 2014.  (Holger Kettner)
Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich performing at the Philharmonie in Berlin in April 2014.
(Holger Kettner)

Mozart/Schubert/Stravinsky Piano Duos (live recording); Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, pianos. DG 479 3922

By Robert Battey

DIGITAL REVIEW — Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim never struck me as musically-kindred souls. She was impulsive, brittle, and propulsive, while he strove for profundity (with varying success) from an early age. But both were child prodigies, born a year apart, who grew up together in Buenos Aires and who collaborated in a soloist-conductor relationship many times over the years. Strange, then, that before their April 2014 concert in the Berlin Philharmonie, captured on this new DG release, they had played duo pianos together only once.

Argerich Barenboim Cover 350The mutual respect is palpable here, between the performers and from the holding-its-breath audience. The sound-picture is clean, though in the Mozart K. 448 there isn’t any stereo separation, which would have been nice, but the two instruments were in line with, rather than facing, each other. This was likely to ensure good ensemble (the performers could thereby see one another’s hands) and indeed, attacks and timing are remarkably good for a live performance.

But it is in the Mozart that the aspect of “playing to the crowd” is the most intrusive. This music doesn’t lend itself to huge halls anyway, and when you have two artists of this stature, who both have “something to say” to the assembled thousands, well, it becomes bloated. And it is also in this piece alone (particularly in the finale) where it is clear which of them has spent more time as a pianist since their childhood in Argentina: Argerich’s finger work is noticeably cleaner.

The highlight for me is the Schubert Variations in A-flat, D. 813. Here, the artists’ emotional responses and pianism mesh wonderfully, each sensitive to the work of the other and to the texture as a whole. Barenboim’s dotted rhythms in the second variation don’t always fit with Argerich’s 16th notes, and accents are often ignored throughout, but the playing is full of life and love. Barenboim’s studio recording of this with Radu Lupu (on Apex) offers cleaner detail and likely wears repeated listening better, but this performance is certainly very special.

The final work, Stravinsky’s four-hand version of Le sacre du printemps is impressive on many levels, but its main draw is just hearing these legendary artists sink their teeth into such a beast, rather than enjoying the music for its own sake.  Despite the wide range of of texture and dynamics produced by Argerich and Barenboim (and it is prodigious), the black-and-white of a single piano cannot begin to recreate the Technicolor of Stravinsky’s orchestra.

The version is both under- and over-percussive. While all attacks, even the most caressing, involve a hammer hitting a string, there is no way for the piano to reproduce the actual percussion instruments so crucial to the drama of the piece. And filling in the textures with tremolos gets old quickly. The first two sections of Part II are particularly drab, notwithstanding the obvious concentration of the performers.

As a memento of a rare occasion, this recording is a success. I don’t know if a video was made at the time, but if so, it would be well worth watching. For pure musical appreciation of the repertoire, however, I can only recommend the disc (with reservations) for the Schubert.

Robert Battey has written regularly for the Washington Post since 2006 and for Strings magazine since 1985.  He is a professional cellist, music director for the Gettysburg Chamber Music Workshop, and an attorney.