MARTHA ARGERICH plays Prokofiev with Shani at de Doelen in Rotterdam

Lahav Shani is pulling out all the stops in his first season as chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Through his exemplary connections in the classical music world, Shani has managed to secure an array of brilliant soloists that would make every world-class orchestra blush. His mentor Daniel Barenboim to open the season, Anna Larsson to conclude it, and along the way such stellar figures as Nathalie Stutzmann, Kirill Gerstein and Pinchas Zukerman. That’s what we knew at the beginning of the season. Then, a few months in, the Rotterdam Philharmonic was able to announce another star casting for the final of the calendar year 2018: Living Legend Martha Argerich is making her return to Rotterdam after over ten years of absence. What’s more, she is playing her signature piece, the Prokofieff Piano Concerto No. 3 in C-Major, a dazzling display of virtuosity, with fingers flying all over the place. I was one of the fortunate people tonight to sit on the left side of the hall, where I had a prime view of Ms. Argerich’s hands doing their magic.

Before the Prokofiev piano concerto, Shani and the orchestra play another one of the composer’s more popular works, the Symphony No. 1 “Symphonie Classique”. It is an interesting indicator for how the evening will go. It shows us how Shani has been working the orchestra since he took over from Yannick Nezet Seguin: He has radically changed the orchestra’s sound, from something soft and mellow under Yannick to a much more transparent unit, with a chamber music-like ethos of listening to one other. This has different effects on a piece like this one: The Beethovenian corner movements are much livelier and make your spine tingle with exquisite solos of the woodwinds, and a much greater level of coherence in the high strings than Yannick ever demanded from the orchestra. The basses are also much more rhythmical and detailed, rather than painting the broad German brush as they did under Yannick. The corner movements almost remind of Haydn in their astounding vitality.

However, Shani has to pay attention that his emphasis on transparency does not become too analytical or clinical. The centre movements demand a much more emotional approach, since the orchestration is not so boisterous and Prokofiev is much more sparing with the melodic fireworks here. When the orchestra plays the pizzicato passages in the centre movements, they are transmitted more like a classical etude, rather than the romantic, emotional outpouring that they could be. This is where the orchestra has to play out their romantic calling card. Yannick made the Rotterdam Phil one of the best undercard romantic orchestras in Europe, for works of Schumann to Bruckner and Wagner. Despite Mr. Shani’s exemplary touch for transparency, the two entities will have to focus on finding the balance between transparency and romantic emphasis in future years. Since they have only been working together for roughly four months, there is still a lot to learn from and about each other.

Now to the main event: I had heard the great Martha Argerich only once before, in a spectacular duo recital of Debussy with Daniel Barenboim at Easter this year. The instantly engaging presence of this incredible artist was mixed with a unique humanity. She was clearly at ease at the side of her old friend Barenboim, so how would the (rumoured) very strong personality of Martha Argerich harmonise with Barenboim’s musical son, Lahav Shani?

Shani is a calculating, analytical musician, whereas Argerich is simply calm personified. She has played Prokofiev 3 for decades and recorded it more times than I care to count. There are few world-famous pianists whose success is so linked with this piece than that of Martha Argerich. Despite taking the stage with a slight cold (some sniffs and huffs between movements), Argerich’s finger movements and her command of the piece are singular. Few interpreters have such intimate views of their pieces and roles and Argerich shows she is at home she is in the world of Prokofiev. Her tempi are astoundingly fast, indeed sometimes too fast for Shani and the orchestra. But despite these slight hitches in rhythmical coordination between soloist and orchestra, all musicians manage to paint an impressive picture of a concerto which was literally written by the composer to impress, to get attention.

Despite (as Prokofiev intended) all the attention focussing on the soloist, Argerich’s dazzling virtuosity is never reckless, and in this sense she fits nicely with Shani’s analytical touch and transparent handling of the orchestra, which continues also in the piano concerto. Her waterfalls, long jumps over various octaves and bursting chords are never in danger, but always perfectly integrated into the flow of the music. This creates a coherent picture of a commanding, yet never controlled and always celebrating performance, where Argerich never loses the flow of the music, that feeling that all explosions of virtuosity only work when executed with care and command. Argerich’s interpretation is as close to perfection as you will get, and she is accompanied and supported beautifully by the orchestra’s wind section. While the clarinet (again) is rather analytical in the opening solo, Shani builds an architecture that shines in its transparency, with especially the horn section adding unknown spices to an often-heard piece.

When I last heard it with Daniele Gatti conducted the Concertgebouw, and Daniil Trifonov was the soloist, the accent was on repose, impressing through not going for that total virtuosity. Here in Rotterdam in turn were two artists who were completely at home in the music, embracing the modern, transparent beauty of virtuosity to make this an incredible night, with immediate standing ovations. Finally, Argerich and Shani blow the house off De Doelen with three (!) encores which they play together on the piano: Exquisite excerpts from Ravel’s Mother Goose; played with such feeling by Argerich in the high register, than you cannot help but marvel at the sheer skill of this incredible artist. Having her in Rotterdam was a true privilege.     Yannik Eisenaecher     22nd December 2018

Yannik Eisenaecher is the publisher of the blog FreshEarsClassics