With the help of her friend, Argerich's first-ever appearance in Cleveland proves to be sensational.
Martha Argerich & Sergei Babayan
Severence Hall, Cleveland
Monday 30 October 2017
By Donald Rosenberg
Sergei Babayan has developed what must be considered extraordinary powers of persuasion. On 30 October, the Armenian-American pianist – a beloved figure in this city’s musical life – accomplished something no one had before: he brought Martha Argerich to town to team with him in recital at Severance Hall.
It’s anyone’s guess how the celebrated Argentine pianist had slipped through the cracks here, especially with an august ensemble like the Cleveland Orchestra inhabiting Severance for most of its nearly 100-year-history. What is clear is that Babayan deserves bountiful credit for luring his colleague to share the stage under the auspices of the Cleveland International Piano Competition.
Babayan was first-prize winner of the competition in 1989, when it was known as the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition. He later joined the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he is artist-in-residence and mentor to a generation of splendid students, including a rather lionized one named Daniil Trifonov.
Over the years, Babayan forged a lasting artistic relationship with Argerich, who has famously shunned the solo-recital spotlight for many decades in favor of the occasional orchestral and chamber-music appearance. When she stepped onstage at Severance with Babayan at her side, the audience welcomed her as a conquering hero.
This was not an occasion to bask only in Argerich’s supreme artistry. With Steinway pianos placed side by side, she sat at the instrument upstage for the programme’s first two works. Any notions that Argerich would play second fiddle, so to speak, to Babayan were dispelled when they immersed themselves with fierce resolve into his two-piano transcription of Twelve Movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Op 75.
A year before the ballet had its 1938 premiere, Prokofiev arranged 10 sections for solo piano and gave the first performance. Babayan’s transcription retains some of the same movements, while choosing others and expanding the sonic palette for two instruments.
With Babayan and Argerich in remarkable sync, the performance emphasized the music’s violence, especially in the Prologue and Death of Tybalt, even as they offered needed respite from the tumult in the charming Gavotte and shimmering Aubade. The pianists matched silken sonorities in the delicate passages and kept articulations crisp when the dramatic going gets rough.
Some of their tempos were so quick that dancers would have been forced to cross eyes, not to mention limbs. But the visceral impact of hearing two keyboard wizards in urgent action, notably in the whirlwind episode in Death of Tybalt that usually challenges a string section, prompted the audience to respond with gasps of delight.
Babayan and Argerich maintained the same positions for Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K448, which they shaped with heightened elegance and buoyancy. If you didn’t peek, you would never had known which pianist was playing what – so seamless was their sharing and shaping of material. The Andante wove its miraculous spell as the collaborators answered one another like friends engaged in intimate conversation.
Prokofiev was back at the printed programme’s end, with Argerich taking the first part in Babayan’s transcription of Seven Piano Pieces, in their US premiere. The collection comprises selections from incidental music to stage versions of Hamlet and Eugene Onegin, the unfinished film The Queen of Spades, and the opera War and Peace, all written in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Aside from the expected gloom of ‘The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father,’ Babayan’s vibrant adaptation contains dance movements of considerable personality, and that is what the music received. The pianists exulted in the captivating motion of the mazurka, polka, polonaise, and waltzes, with Argerich spinning subtle and exuberant phrases in close contact with her equally dynamic partner.
The pianists were showered with flowers at the end, some of which they handed to their fearless page turners, and then returned for the night’s most enchanting music-making, two Rachmaninoff selections. In the Barcarolle from the Suite No 1 Op 15, and Waltz from the Suite No 2, Op 17, Argerich and Babayan savored every rhapsodic turn of phrase and virtuosic swirl. Accepting the roar of the crowd, they clasped hands and chatted with one another, as if elated by the warmth and excitement that was enveloping the hall.
Donald Rosenberg is the author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: ‘Second to None’ and editor of EMAg, the magazine of Early Music America. He served four terms as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.
Photos: © Roger Mastroianni