Piano legend's outsized personality wins crowd over

While the nation was being occupied by the summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, music lovers here were likely more excited by Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich's debut in Singapore, undoubtedly the highlight of the 25th Singapore International Piano Festival.

As Argerich no longer performs solo recitals, audiences are content with her presence in chamber music and duo recitals.

Her piano duo partners have included Stephen Kovacevich, Nelson Freire, Alexandre Rabinovitch and Daniel Barenboim and her Singapore recital was to feature Argentinian conductor-pianist Dario Ntaca in tandem.

Those expecting a femme fatale oozing exotic allure, as suggested by her record-cover photographs over the decades, might have been underwhelmed by the appearance of a 77-year-old grandmother with a slightly stooped posture taking the stage.

But legends do not just fade away, they prefer to go out with a bang.

Fireworks were not the first order of the day, as the opening two works were slow and quiet. Ntaca, helming the first piano part, opened with the flute solo of Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of The Faun.

It was still and haunting, answered by Argerich on second piano with harp-like arpeggios. The atmosphere was languid and laid-back from the outset and one could be excused for nodding off.

Next was Schubert's Rondo In A Major (D. 951) for four hands on a single piano. This was pure hausmusik, written for home entertainment by friends and family. Congenial to a fault, the work exuded an easy drawing-room charm, gratefully lapped up by both pianists and shared by the near full-house.



    25th Singapore International Piano Festival

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Monday

Far more challenging was Mozart's Sonata In D Major For Two Pianos (K. 448), which required greater expertise.

There are certainly more notes and, although they started and ended together, there was a niggling sense that the duo had not lived long with the work together.

There were many lovely moments, but imagine what a long-time and dedicated piano duo could do with this work.

For the second half, Argerich took over the primo role. Brahms' Haydn Variations (based on the St Anthony Chorale) started strongly, with an orchestral feel to the sound production.

The good work, however, petered out in the final variation, a passacaglia, in which over-pedalling was used to mask an overall messiness.

Fortunately, there was Rachmaninov's warhorse Second Suite to save the day. Both pianists raced off like thoroughbreds in the opening Alla Marcia. This breathlessness continued into the vertiginous Waltz, where the spellbinding speed still continues to amaze.

The Romance offered enough time to smell the roses before rapturously arriving at the final Tarantella. Here, one got to savour up close Argerich's brilliant fingerwork, which was closely matched by Ntaca.

There were two encores, a less than totally inspiring Debussy's En Bateau (Petite Suite) and a reprise of the brilliant Rachmaninov Waltz.

Ultimately, it was Argerich's reputation, outsized personality and largesse that won the crowd over.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2018, with the headline Piano legend's outsized personality wins crowd over. Subscribe