Wednesday, 13 June 2018

MARTHA ARGERICH & DARIO NTACA IN RECITAL / 25th Singapore International Piano Festival / Review

25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Esplanade Concert Hall
Monday (11 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 June 2018 with the title "Piano legend's outsized personality wins crowd over".

While the nation was being occupied by hype surrounding Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's peace summit, music lovers here knew what was really important: Argentine pianist Martha Argerich's debut in Singapore, undoubtedly the highlight of the 25th Singapore International Piano Festival.

As Argerich no longer performs solo recitals, audiences are content with her presence in chamber music and duo recitals. Her piano duo partners have included Stephen Kovacevich, Nelson Freire, Alexandre Rabinovitch and Daniel Barenboim, and her Singapore recital was to feature Argentine conductor-pianist Dario Ntaca in tandem.

Those expecting a femme fatale oozing musical ecstasy and exotic allure as suggested by her record-cover photographs over the decades might have been underwhelmed by the appearance of a 77-year-old grandmother with a slightly stooped posture taking the stage. But legends do not just fade, they prefer to go out with a big bang.

Fireworks were not first order of the day, as the opening two works were slow and quiet. Ntaca, helming the first piano part, opened with the flute solo of Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of the Faun. It was still and haunting, replied by Argerich on second piano with harp-like arpeggios. The atmosphere was languid and laid-back from the outset, and one could be excused for nodding off.

Next was Schubert's Rondo in A major (D.951) for four hands on a single piano. This was pure hausmusik, written for home entertainment by friends and family. Congenial to a fault, the work exuded an easy drawing room charm, gratefully lapped up by both pianists and shared by the near full-house.

Far more challenging was Mozart's Sonata in D major for two pianos (K.448), which required greater expertise. There are certainly more notes, and although they started and ended together, there was a niggling sense that the duo had not lived long with the work together. There were many lovely moments, but imagine what a long-time and dedicated piano duo could do more with this work.   

For the second half, Argerich took over the primo role. Brahms's Haydn Variations (based on the St. Anthony Chorale) started strongly, with an orchestral feel to the sound production. The good work however petered out in the final variation, a passacaglia, where over-pedalling was used to mask an overall messiness.

Fortunately there was Rachmaninov's warhorse Second Suite to save the day. Both pianists raced off like thoroughbreds in the opening Alla Marcia. This breathlessness continued into the vertiginous Waltz, where the spellbinding speed still continues to amaze. The Romance offered enough time to smell the roses before rapturously arriving at the final Tarantella. Here one really got to savour up close Argerich's brilliant fingerwork, which was closely matched by Ntaca.

There were two encores, a less than totally inspiring Debussy's En Bateau (Petite Suite) and a reprise of the brilliant Rachmaninov Waltz. Ultimately it was Argerich's reputation, outsized personality and largesse that won the crowd over.    

This little girl can tell her grandchildren
she watched the great Martha Argerich perform.
Everybody wants to look like La Martha,
especially the piano teachers.

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