Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich is a star, even when she is just taking a back seat accompanying others.
Daniel Barenboim was actually the mover behind tonight’s chamber concert at the Festival in the Haus für Mozart. It was originally for Argerich and him, augmented with members of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, to give a concert in addition to a symphonic concert Barenboim was conducting with Argerich and the full orchestra yesterday. As the concert drew nearer, the program kept changing (on the website and through comments in the media) – a Schostakowitsch piano quintet vanished; Schubert was added and later removed; more Schumann filled the program; Barenboim’s violinist son got added as a featured soloist – it never was announced whether Argerich or Barenboim would perform which piano works, and left unclear which other musicians might be needed. Suspense.
Prokofiev‘s Overture on Jewish Themes led off the evening, in its original setting for clarinet and piano quintet. This work is normally performed in an orchestrated version Prokofiev made a couple of decades later, but the setting this evening worked. The clarinetist, Jussef Eisa, was spectacular for the mock-klezmer lead, with the string instruments (Michael Barenboim and Mohamed Hiber on violin, Miriam Manashevov on viola, and Astrig Siranossian on cello) making a full orchestra unnecessary with their complete sound. Argerich, sitting behind them on the keyboard, played just as much as she needed too but no more – of course it was terrific playing, but she saw her role as support for the other five musicians and despite her obvious highest-level quality she nevertheless let them have the lead.
From this point on, the program shifted to all-Schumann. Unfortunately gone was the Schostakowitch quintet, as well as anything by Schubert that had fleetingly come and gone from the program. Schumann’s output was uneven.
All but Eisa returned for the Piano Quintet in E-flat, op. 44, and they gave a convincing rendition (again with Argerich doing all she needed to in order to demonstrate her own talent but have the four string players take precedence – it was about them, not her, but we all heard her too).
Argerich accompanied Michael Barenboim for the Sonata for Violin and Piano #1, which I found less convincing. Michael Barenboim had done fine in an ensemble, but despite his adeptness, something seemed odd with his solo tone. It was as though he was playing his instrument to produce a sweet legato, but not wanting to sound too sweet added some sour spices. “Sweet and sour” works in the kitchen. It may have even worked here. It was just unusual.
Finally, Daniel Barenboim took the stage himself, to join Argerich, Siranossian, Adi Tal (second cello), and Ben Goldscheider (horn) for the Andante and Variations. Schumann wrote this work soon after he wrote the piano quintet, but never published it nor was it performed publicly until long after his death. Indeed, although it had some wonderful lines, it felt unfinished. The choice of instruments was peculiar (he likely wrote it for whomever was coming over to his home that evening) and could have used some filling out (build out the themes; ditch the two pianos and orchestrate for a full orchestra since there was certainly enough there) but that never happened.
Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich performed two encores (both works for two pianos) which they did not announce and which I did not recognize (not surprising, given I’m actually not a fan of the piano and therefore am less familiar with piano music). The elder Barenboim may be quite accomplished in his own right (and a better pianist than conductor), but Argerich outshone him tonight as well.
The acoustics in the stupidly-named Haus for Mozart remain terrible. Tonight they constructed a large curved wooden structure to place behind the musicians and help send the sound into the hall, but it still sounded distant and dull. Tear the thing down and build another – there is no excuse for this.