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 Recording of the Week, Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim perform piano duos

I hesitate to use the somewhat clichéd term “living legends”, but I feel that when I’m discussing a recital of music for piano duo by Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, it might be justified to do so. The two Argentine pianists teamed up for the first time since the 1980s to perform at the Berlin Philharmonie on Saturday, 19th April 2014, and the concert has now been issued on disc by Deutsche Grammophon.

The recital begins with one of the cornerstones of the two-piano repertoire: Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K448. Right from the first bar, you can tell just how much the two pianists are enjoying themselves, and there’s an infectious glee that runs throughout the work. The slow movement especially is quite lovely, with a delicate touch from both performers.

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich
Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich

Their combination of technical wizardry and artistic flair makes this a joyous performance indeed, and this is continued in the second piece, Schubert’s Variations on an Original Theme in A flat major, D813 for piano duet. At almost nineteen minutes it’s quite a substantial work, but it never feels long, and the pianistic pair play with such variety of colour and expression that I actually wished there had been more variations for them to play!

I hope you’ll forgive me if it feels as if I’ve rather glossed over these first two works on the disc; it’s merely a symptom of my eagerness to tell you about the main course, which is none other than a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring.

The Rite received its notoriously riotous première in May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. In advance of the première, Stravinsky prepared an arrangement for four-hand piano, the first part of which was played by him and fellow composer Claude Debussy in June 1912.

It has been thought that at least part of the première’s commotion came from an outraged audience, incensed that Stravinsky’s music did not follow in the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. What I found most fascinating about hearing this version, though, was how much a part of this tradition the work actually is. I was struck, for instance, by the extent to which the Procession of the Elders reminded me of Mussorgsky, specifically the Baba Yaga movement of Pictures at an Exhibition.

It’s little things like this that helped to remove my initial scepticism about hearing the work in such an arrangement. I did miss the occasional orchestral colour: perhaps inevitably two pianos are never going to do justice to sounds such as string harmonic chords or muted brass, but conversely I often found I heard details that normally get lost in an orchestral performance.

Of course, hearing the piece in this version also made me acutely aware just how tricky it is: it’s hard enough when you have a whole orchestra, so quite how Barenboim and Argerich manage this jaw-droppingly virtuosic performance is beyond me! I was absolutely amazed by Barenboim’s dexterity in the conclusion to Part One (Dance of the Earth): the rapid-fire trumpet semiquavers that occur towards the end are despatched with astonishing clarity. I didn’t think it was possible to repeat notes that quickly on a piano!

This is proper seat-of-your-pants, roller-coaster stuff: it’s a live recording, and you really feel that palpable sense of excitement and adrenaline, which is hardly surprising given the amount of notes they have to play! It truly is a stunning example of amazing pianistic feats, and I recommend it very highly indeed. It will also be available as a download from next Monday.

Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim (piano duo)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC