Martha Argerich: The Collection 1

Martha Argerich (DG 8 CDs 477 587-0)

14 August 2008 4 stars

Martha Argerich: The Collection 1Some of the recordings reissued here in this lavish box from Deutsche Grammophon have been such mainstays of the company's catalogue that music-lovers are in danger of taking them for granted. This set then presents a particularly welcome opportunity to marvel afresh at Martha Argerich's breathtaking pianism and musicianship.

This box includes all Argerich's solo recordings for the yellow label, reissued in the exact programmes that they were originally released, in CD-sized reproductions of the original record sleeves. Although this approach means that the CDs themselves are less than generously filled (their playing length, reflecting that capacity of LPs, hovers between forty and fifty minutes), this box can lay claim to being the definitive means of collecting these great recordings. Whether or not fans of the Argentinian pianist will willingly replace their existing versions of these well-known recordings in favour of it will be a different matter.

In Argerich's debut recording – first released as far back as 1961, most recently reissued in the Originals series, supplemented by the Liszt sonata put down in 1971 – we have what amounts to a manifesto of her astonishing brand of piano playing. A scintillating version of Chopin's Third Scherzo – have its defining double octaves ever sounded so effortless at such an exacting pace? – is followed by Argerich's big-boned and passionate Brahms (the two Rhapsodies Op.79). There's more Chopin in the Barcarolle Op.60, which, along with Ravel's Jeux d'eau, shows her ability to coax an array of colours from the piano. A furious Prokoviev Toccata and a Liszt finale – the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody – give a further demonstration of a technique of such thoroughbred robustness that no music seems to hold any fears for it. Restored here is also the original LP cover – it was replaced in 1967 by the better known black and white photo used for the Originals reissue as well as the cover of this box – which helps to remind us just quite how prodigious the young Argerich was (she was only nineteen at the time of the recording).

Although all the recordings here are all well known it's fascinating to have this opportunity to relive the releases one by one, placing them in the context of Argerich's far from conventional career. It was not until six years after her debut that her next solo recording - an all Chopin affair - was released. EMI recorded a recital with Argerich in 1965, the year of her triumph at the Warsaw Chopin Competition, but legal reasons prevented this from being released until relatively recently (1999). Common ground between the EMI recording and the next disc in this set, recorded for DG in 1967, comes in the significant form of the Third Sonata, the 'Heroic' Polonaise Op.53 and three Mazurkas Op.59. For DG Argerich also included the Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61. Here some of the excessive forcefulness that some have criticised in Argerich's playing is apparent, most noticeably in the sonata's opening movement. Jed Distler, who provides brief introductions to all the recordings, writes 'how Chopin would have reacted to Argerich taking the B minor Sonata first movement's Allegro maestoso as a veritable Allegro con fuoco is anyone's guess' and the effect is an inevitable reduction in the movement's great lyricism. But by the time we get to the blistering account of the finale, it's difficult not to have been won over by the sheer force of Argerich's interpretation.

This is part and parcel of Argerich's playing and perhaps more typical of her solo work than her collaborative performances. However, it is a sign of her greatness that the musical personality is such that even when one might disagree with an interpretative choice she rarely fails to persuade the listener that she's right. It's possible to overlook the fact that often the sheer power that resides in her fingers seems to preclude some of the delicate touches that other pianists bring to the filigree of Liszt's sonata (on the third disc of the set, coupled as on the original 1972 release with Schumann's Sonata No.2), for example, or the childlike simplicity that should ideally run through Kinderszenen, which opens the final Schumann disc, coupled with Kreisleriana.

The Liszt sonata, then, if it lacks some lightness at times, contains compelling evidence of Argerich the firebrand, as does the Schumann coupling. There's more variety in the truly great performance of Chopin's Sonata No.2 on the next disc (from 1975, coupled with the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise and the B flat minor Scherzo) where the drive of the first movement is contrasted with the central sections of both the scherzo and the marche funèbre where heartbreaking simplicity and stillness is achieved. The last disc of Chopin in the set is the 1977 release of the Préludes. This is another classic and the sense of momentum and structure Argerich achieves across the whole Op.24 set is astonishing, encompassing an ardent sense of poetic feeling, staggering virtuosity (never has the B flat minor sounded more presto or con fuoco than here) and culminating in the elemental force of the final D minor piece. Two remaining discs to mention are the 1975 Ravel recital – including the classic Gaspard de la nuit that's rarely out of the catalogue – and the disc of Bach (the Toccata BWV 911, Partita BWV 826 and English Suite BWV 807) recorded in 1979.

It can be easy to become complacent about recordings by a great artist and we can be grateful for anything that reminds one just what makes Martha Argerich's playing so compelling, as this reissue definitely does. However, the relatively small crop of solo recordings – this set represents only five hours or so of studio recordings laid down in just under twenty five years – also brings inevitable regret that the pianist couldn't have been lured into the studio more often. We have to be grateful for what we have and although Argerich's activities for other labels will inevitably prevent any comprehensive retrospective, DG's 'collection' – this is part one of what should be a series – looks set to be the definitive, completist's choice for the recordings on that label.

By Hugo Shirley