No one disputes Martha Argerich’s pre-eminence as a concert pianist but her mercurial style has never really settled into a sustained relationship with the recording studio, so live recordings are prominent in her career – with all the blessings and curses implied by the form. Back in 1978 as a 30-something tearaway, she recorded Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25 in C, K503, with a Netherlands Chamber Orchestra that never quite matched her virtuosity, making the subsequent release on EMI a little underwhelming. But now, as a cancer survivor in her 70s, she returned to this C Major work at last year’s Lucerne Festival with Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart in another live recording, but one which has an autumnal feel about it.
Tempi, dynamics, and of course the grand maestoso opening all seem about right, but as a whole the first two movements speak of mature masters returning to a loved work in a spirit of authority rather than with the sense of vivacity, inspiration and play that might normally be associated with Mozart in this key. Beautifully balanced in the recording, there’s just something missing, just that spark of inspiration or vigour for which no amount of technical excellence can compensate. But then Argerich’s entry in the finale suddenly emerges like an Indian summer, dazzling and lively, darting in and out of the orchestral texture as it hasn’t done until that point.
The coupling is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor, K466 which Abbado and the same ensemble recorded a year earlier, with them going one way and the sublime, poetic soloist Maria Joao Pires another. Here, conductor and soloist seem more in synch and Argerich’s sound is so much better-balanced than it was in her piano-heavy earlier recording of the same work with Alexandre Rabinovich on Teldec. K466 is a much more drama-charged work than K503, of course, and this performance is at its best when the music is at its most intense, the climaxes of the first movement and the finale building up a good head of steam, but always with a sense of reflection rather than sturm und drang.
Where Maurizio Pollini’s Mozart concerto performances just seem to grow more and more youthful and sparkling with age, Argerich and Claudio Abbado (who sadly passed away in January) bring to them the cares of life, creating music of consolation and philosophy, deliberation and calm, laudable, if today rather unglamorous, attributes, which Mozart’s genius can accommodate.