The conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy writes in his programme notes that Martha Argerich is “both a poet and a tiger on stage” – though the great Argentinian pianist leaves audiences on tenterhooks as to which, if either of them, will turn up. An Argerich appearance is never conclusively confirmed until she is seated at the keyboard, so there was a palpable sense of relief at the Manchester International festival as she prepared to play – albeit not the piece that had originally been advertised.
Shostakovich’s concerto for piano and trumpet had been mysteriously ejected; in its place came Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1, a staple of Argerich’s repertoire. Yet her intense frown was frequently broken by sudden beams of delight, as if her own fingers are still capable of surprising her. Some pianists aim for accuracy, others for freedom of expression: Argerich unerringly achieves both. Yet despite her reputation for unpredictability, she gave a generous, remarkably ego-free performance that included and inspired the musicians around her: the sublime interplay in the slow movement included a musical conversation that the Manchester Camerata’s principal clarinet, Fiona Cross, is likely to remember for the rest of her life.
It was fitting that the Camerata – the most underrated of Manchester’s orchestras – should have this honour, as their inspired musical director has a close artistic relationship with Argerich and was instrumental in negotiating her first appearance in Manchester for almost 50 years. Nor was there any suggestion that Takács-Nagy’s rapt performances of Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste deserved second billing. Both featured spare, understated artistry from David Kadouch, a winner at the Leeds International Piano competition; while no pianist in their right mind would attempt to blow Argerich off stage, Kadouch may just have succeeded in whispering her from it.
Originally published in The Guardian, 14 July 2013