Sunday, February 27, 2022

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Martha Argerich’s duo-partners – regal personalities all – have varied interestingly over the years. With Sergei Babayan the chemistry seems ideal, the search for a common grail assured. Opening the second half of this sold-out recital, Mozart’s Viennese D-major Sonata, K448 (November 1781) was about as perfectly judged as one could wish for. Purling scales, expressively spoken and shaped ornaments, flowing exchanges between two (finely matched) Steinways, shared articulation. A strong, Concerto-like sense of tuttis and solos. A delight in giving life to enchanted invention. A panoply of operatic characters, scenes and moods played out within a galant symphonic structure joyously ‘orchestral’. Lyrically, the central G-major Andante was a timeless aria cushioned in velvet, the projection romantically intensified, poetically elevated, the room hushed.

Babayan and Argerich recorded the predominantly Prokofiev element of their programme for DG in November 2017 (Schloss Elmau, Bavarian Alps). “It happened”, Babayan says, “because of my love for Prokofiev, my love for Martha, and my love for the ballet Romeo and Juliet.” His transcriptions (dedicated to Argerich and not solely confined to Romeo) remind me a little of Dmitri Alexeev’s re-focussings of Shostakovich and Gershwin: technically virtuosic affairs that get to the spirit of the matter without necessarily following prescribed theatrical or sequencing contexts. Twelve movements from Romeo and Juliet suitably stunned – Babayan, rising off the piano stool, using body weight in the more forceful passages, Argerich assuming a quieter pose, generating visceral crescendos out of seemingly nowhere, forearms tensioned but not tense, sinews thrown into relief by the stage lighting. Powerhouse octaves, precision attack, daggered chords, coiled ensemble, roaring basses were for the relishing. The many asides and cameos nuanced in cantabile similarly, purity of melody and ‘white’ tone given priority – the delicately unfolded tenderness of ‘Morning Serenade’, the exquisite beauty (and grammatical curvature) of ‘Romeo and Juliet before Departure’ (Juliet subtly Gallic in monochrome) leaving an especially enduring impression.

Relaxed in their easy matured familiarity, unperturbed by conventions of etiquette, their encore was the Barcarolle in G-minor opening Rachmaninov’s Fantaisie-tableaux (Suite No.1), Opus 5. Happy to breathe its faded nostalgia, playing with waterfalls of sound and rubato, lingering on emotive intervals and dying cadences, they took us to a smoky fin de siècle world rarely heard these days. Old ghosts came to listen: how Cherkassky would have adored the tenor voicings, the expanse of feeling, the liberation of time. Walking down Wigmore Street, near deserted, Lermontov’s prefatory lines resonated. “At dusk the chill wave laps gently/Beneath the gondola’s slow oar/That song again and again, the ring of a guitar/In the distance an old barcarolle was heard,/now melancholy, now happy …/The gondola glides through the water, and time glides over the surge of love;/The water will grow smooth again and passion will rise no more.”

Sergei Babayan records Rachmaninov for Deutsche Grammophon.