One can't help but assume that this five-CD compilation is a tribute to its conductor, Claudio Abbado, who passed away last year. Certainly his collaborations with thankfully-still-with-us pianist Martha Argerich reveal music-making of brilliant spontaneity and imagination. Consider, for instance, their two recordings of Ravel's G major concerto. Their 1967 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic won immediate acclaim as one of the most sparkling and lively renditions the work had ever had. What good could come of re-doing it in 1984 with the London Symphony Orchestra? How often we have heard artists return to repertoire in which they'd made landmark recordings only to fail to reach their previous levels of achievement. Yet Argerich and Abbado came up with a new yet equally valid and compelling interpretation in 1984: darker, more detailed (and in better sound), and more emotionally profound.
The earlier Ravel was paired with a Prokofiev Third of beautiful transparency and playful wit; the later Ravel has been appended here to another famous pairing, Argerich and Abbado's 1968 recordings with the LSO of the Chopin and Liszt First Concertos (because grouping the recordings by orchestra is clearly how the compiler wanted to organize this set). Of course, it was Argerich's victory at the 1965 International Chopin Competition that shot her to stardom, and her mercurial, echt-Romantic reading still thrills and enraptures (what a lyrical slow movement!), and Abbado makes as much of the orchestral sections as Chopin permits without ever overdoing it. Combined, their interpretation makes this a bigger Chopin First than usual. Their Liszt is fleet and wild, making this by-now familiar music seem new and dangerous again, in a way having the opposite effect of the Chopin in making the piece less monumental than usual, seemingly more in-the-moment.
May I reuse some adjectives and phrases? Because "mercurial," "echt-Romantic," "wild," and "dangerous" all apply to her stunning 1994 Tchaikovsky First with the Berliners. Argerich had certainly set pulses racing with some of her earlier Tchaik 1 recordings (notably "live" on Philips with Kondrashin), but surpasses all her earlier efforts here, not least because the mad dash with Kondrashin, exciting as it was, got a bit sloppy at times, whereas Abbado's passion for detail and execution keep everything together here -- and Argerich herself, perhaps with a little studio wizardry in editing, has nary a slip this time out. Yet there's nothing in the least safe sounding about this dazzler of a performance. Everybody concerned plays with heart-on-sleeve emotional intensity, and the mood shifts are scintillating. This performance, as Walt Whitman wrote in a different context, is vast, it contains multitudes. The piece is elevated from the virtuoso showcase it's so often played as to a great masterwork full of layers of meaning and intent.
There are those who can't stand the Beethoven recordings that Abbado made in the last decade or so of his life after coming to incorporate some aspects of "authentic performance" into his interpretations. The strong rhythms pointed with heavy accents, thinned string textures (both in numbers of players and less vibrato), and fleeter tempos drive them nuts. I am not one of those people; I enjoy the vivid accompaniments Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra provide Argerich in Beethoven's Second and Third Piano Concertos here. Of course, Argerich is not (or so it seems) influenced in the least by "authentic performance" and in these concert recordings from the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara (in 2000 and 2004) she plays with her usual intoxicating freedom. And, let it be noted, considering the later recording dates here, just as much virtuosity as in decades before -- just listen to the cadenza in No. 3 for proof. She very rarely played this piece, and I am not entirely convinced that the Largo holds together at all times -- not as a matter of hitting the notes, but in terms of the soloist's phrasing -- but this does engender a certain intriguing tension. Of course, Argerich recorded No. 2 on multiple occasions, so there's plenty of familiarity here, which is not to say routine -- this is the most dramatic of her recordings of it, with much thanks due to Abbado in that regard. The only complaint I have about this disc is that the sonic qualities and perspective are so different from the Third to the Second that it's a tad jarring.
The most recent items, recorded with Orchestra Mozart (a Bologna group of which Abbado was director) at the 2013 Lucerne Festival, are Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 25. These are good performances, but not great; Abbado phrases them a bit too sternly for my taste, lacking the gracefulness I expect in Mozart, and while Argerich plays well, the piano is often overly prominent in the sonic texture. There is one special touch worth noting in No. 25: Argerich uses the cadenza of Friedrich Gulda, her teacher and Abbado's as well. In No. 20 she plays Beethoven's cadenzas; there is one slight moment of muddiness in the first movement cadenza, but it passes quickly. This concert was, however, an event of undoubted emotional magnitude under the circumstances, and worth preserving despite my cavils.
There is nothing in this box that had not been released before (in fact, there's less, in the sense that the solo Argerich filler pieces from some of the original albums are omitted to adhere to the set's title), but perhaps some of you, like me, had not gotten around to acquiring the more recent Mozart and Beethoven discs -- and even those who got the complete Argerich concertos set of a few years back, seven CDs including other conductors besides Abbado, wouldn't have everything here because that pre-dated the Mozart, though of course they could just buy that disc separately. True, the Mozart concerti are not as crucial as the earlier recordings, but I am nonetheless happy to have them. One more thing: What a pleasure it is to have Jed Distler's booklet notes in this compilation. Very few contemporary critics can write as discerningly as he does about performances of piano repertoire. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.