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Martha Argerich: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

Argerich,Martha Release Date: 09/25/2015
Label: Deutsche Grammophon Catalog #: 002364402 Spars Code: DDD
Composer:  Frédéric Chopin ,  Johannes Brahms ,  Sergei Prokofiev ,  Maurice Ravel  ...  Performer:  Martha Argerich ,  Guy Touvron ,  Gidon Kremer ,  Alexandre Gurning  ...  Conductor:  Claudio Abbado ,  Charles Dutoit ,  Mstislav Rostropovich ,  Jörg Faerber  ...  Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ,  London Symphony Orchestra ,  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra  ...  Number of Discs: 48
Recorded in: Stereo

Between 2008 and 2014 Universal Classics reissued nearly all of Martha Argerich’s Deutsche Grammophon recordings in a series of boxed sets, largely according to genre (solo, chamber, duo, concerto, and so forth). There also was a box containing her output for the Philips label and another devoted to her complete recordings with Claudio Abbado. All of this material appears anew in DG’s 48-CD collection Martha Argerich: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, with the addition of the 1977 Stravinsky Les Noces conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the Chopin and Schumann duos with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and more recent releases like the Berlin and Cologne Chopin Radio Recordings, the 2014 duo piano recital with Daniel Barenboim, and Read more the 4-disc Lugano Concertos collection. The discs are packaged in original-jacket facsimiles and sequenced in more-or-less chronological order by release date.

A few editorial incongruities should be noted. Disc 10 contains the aforementioned Les Noces. In place of its original coupling, Stravinsky’s Mass, the producers substitute the 1985 Philips Bartók Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra conducted by David Zinman. Disc 11’s jacket cover and back sleeve replicate the latter recording’s original CD packaging, yet its contents are completely different. You’d only know by looking through the booklet’s lists of works and recordings that Disc 11 contains Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich playing the Bartók in its original non-orchestra scoring, Mozart’s Andante and Five Variations, and Debussy’s En blanc et noir, filled out by solo Bartók items with Kovacevich.

There’s little new to say about Argerich’s recorded legacy. She’s a pianistic marvel in every way, and at her best, an interpreter with boundless imagination and coloristic resources. Her late-’60s/early-’70s Liszt First, Prokofiev Third, Ravel G major, and Chopin First concerto recordings still tower as reference versions, as do her extraordinary live Rachmaninov D minor concerto, plus the third and best of her three Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto traversals (1994 with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic).

Most of Argerich’s DG solo releases retain their longtime classic status: her Ravel Gaspard de la nuit, Chopin Preludes and Sonata No. 3, Liszt B minor sonata and Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, and the Schumann Kreisleriana and Sonata No. 2 haven’t been surpassed for sheer daring and uncanny technical aplomb. Since Argerich rarely has performed solo since 1983, her catalog abounds with chamber, concerto, and piano duo collaborations. Her most musically and pianistically rewarding two-piano encounters involve her old friend and colleague Nelson Freire (the 2009 Salzburg Concert, the Rachmaninov Suite No. 2).

If the Beethoven violin sonata and cello sonata cycles respectively featuring Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky ultimately hold interest on account of the piano player, these two musicians check their quirks and mannerisms at the door when teaming up with Argerich for the most mind-blowing Tchaikovsky A minor and Shostakovich Op. 87 trios on disc. Among numerous performances that duplicate music that Argerich recorded earlier, only a few remakes prove superior (the 2009 Ravel La Valse and Brahms Haydn Variations with Freire, and the aforementioned Abbado Tchaikovsky First Concerto).

As my colleague David Hurwitz succinctly and accurately observed in his original review of the four-disc “Lugano Concertos” collection , the circumstances of live recording with a fair-to-middling orchestra and various second-tier conductors (Capilla, Chmur, Fasolis, Marin, Rabinovitch-Barakovsky, Vadernikov) aren’t likely to produce world-class results, even if Argerich plays amazingly well. Moreover, great piano playing cannot really pull focus from the inferior choir up front in the Lugano Stravinsky Les Noces and Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes. Surely these “Argerich and Friends” encounters are congenial, but do they genuinely inspire or challenge the pianist?

The problem has to do with what often happens when certain great musicians reach a plateau of accomplishment and success to the point where they don’t have to prove themselves. They enjoy independence, freedom, and security, yet tend to become more isolated and wind up living in a bubble, without checks and balances. Think about Louis Armstrong fronting mediocre big bands, Frank Sinatra’s pretentious three-disc Trilogy, Karajan’s largely unnecessary digital remakes, Luciano Pavarotti’s horrific crossover misadventures, or Elvis Presley’s post-army career. For that matter, who’s going to say “no” to Argerich should she decide to re-re-re-re-record the Ravel Concerto, with a no-name orchestra and a conductor fresh out of college tagging along on her coattails?

Still, the pianist’s imperfect yet galvanizing 2014 two-piano encounter with Daniel Barenboim in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring hints that she may be willing to step out of her comfort zone and keep evolving artistically throughout her eighth decade. Who knows, maybe she’ll finally record a Beethoven or Schubert piano sonata?

-- Jed Distler,
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