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Mostly Martha

By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 8

Saratoga Chamber Music Festival

Spa Little Theater, Aug. 11


You can easily fill Saratoga’s Spa Little Theater with the area’s cult followers of pianist Martha Argerich, which happened last Monday (Aug. 11). They cheered the performance of a less-than-minor Beethoven piece with the ardency of a stadium of Springsteen fans.

Put the same Argerich-ites in the SPAC amphitheater, and they barely make a dent. Which happened last Friday (Aug. 8), when a less-than-half-filled hall cheered a major minor-Beethoven piece.

The amphitheater program featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon joining frequent collaborator Argerich in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, and first-chair violist Choon-Jin Chang as soloist in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Had it been booked in Carnegie Hall, or any hall in a major international market, it would have been a sellout. But the Capital Region remains culturally timid, hamstrung by a “that’s good enough for Albany” mentality that settles for the second-rate, the also-ran. Pursuing seats at a classical music concert might make you seem as if you’re putting on airs.

Argerich is famously limelight shy, although she directs an annual music festival in Switzerland and makes regular visits to SPAC to perform with ex-spouse Dutoit.

The high point of these recent two appearances was in the Spa Little Theater: a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2, a wrenching work composed in 1944 when the Nazi siege of Leningrad had just ended and a close friend of the composer had just died.

As a performer, Argerich approaches the stage modestly and sits at the piano almost as an afterthought. She dives into a piece as quickly as possible, but once it gets going you see someone in rapt concentration, her fingers moving as an afterthought. Suddenly the hands rise and fall and sound an unexpectedly robust fortissimo.

As in the passacaglia chords on piano alone that open the Trio’s third movement. These are harmonies intended to frighten, and the throbbing overtones were nerve-wracking. Violin and cello develop long-lined ideas on top of those chords for several choruses, rendering the sequence increasingly disturbing even as it takes on a beauty of sound.

Gautier Capuçon looks like a Central Casting image of a moody cellist. He leans back in his chair and embraces the instrument. With his longish hair and serious mien, he would look at home in the original Byrds line-up.

The trio opens with plaintive cello harmonics, gorgeously rendered, soon joined by a lower-voiced violin. From the start, you’re thrown off-kilter by the unexpected voicings. Renaud has more buttoned-down look than his brother, but he has his Ray Charles moments—rocking back in his chair, stamping his feet—when the music gets frantic.

This happens in the second movement, a sardonic scherzo (there’s a surprise!) and especially in the finale, when an emotionally ambivalent Jewish melody is put through its paces. (As Shostakovich explained, “A cheerful melody is built here on sad intonations.”)

Argerich and the Capuçon brothers tore into it with barely suppressed fury. Were they layering on unnecessary emotion? Not to my ears. This is a piece that demands total devotion from the performers, and this approach can be heard in the composer’s own recording of it.

By contrast, the opening work, a piano quartet by Beethoven, benefitted from anything the performers could throw its way. The violist was Saratoga Chamber Music Festival director Chantal Juillet, obviously sympathetic to the cause. Written when Beethoven was in his teens, the work rips off a Mozart violin sonata. Like the Mozart, it’s more about the piano, using the accompanying strings as window dressing except for some second-movement flourishes. It does foreshadow the composer’s wit and originality, as in the first-movement development section when you’re tricked into thinking the recapitulation has begun early.

Beethoven wrote his Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra (performed Friday with the Philadelphia Orchestra) shortly after finishing the “Eroica” symphony, but the concerto remains a more traditional (if overly ambitious) piece. It frequently favors the cello, which is the first-heard soloist, but soon enough marches into a byplay between soloists and orchestra that lacks the complexity of chamber works like the Archduke trio but at least has the fun of that great big sound. And the Polonaise that ends the piece is infectiously charming.

This amphitheater performance was all the more exciting because, as in the Little Theater, Argerich and the Capuçons held nothing back in the passion department, offering quick tempi and sudden dynamic contrasts and never looking to over-interpret any of the lyrical passages.

For lyricism, we got another big piece on the second half of the orchestral concerto: Harold in Italy, Berlioz’s tone-poem for viola and orchestra, commissioned by Paganini and inspired by Byron and a totally original piece that tells its tale without the fireworks typical of concertos (and which is why Paganini never performed it).

Violist Choon-Jin Chang has the challenge of painting lyrical pictures with his instrument’s contralto voice, that sea of orchestral sound always threatening to sweep it away. He did beautifully. Conductor Dutoit is always a sensitive accompanist, and supported the soloist nicely. The second movement, for example, titled March of the Pilgrims, gets into a hypnotic groove when the pacing, the dynamics, the solo singing and arpeggios—when all of those elements fall into place with conviction and transparency. And that’s what we got.

Speaking of low voices: the chamber-music concert also included Grieg’s rarely performed Cello Sonata, giving Gautier a chance to go all romantic on us. The second movement, marked andante molto tranquillo, showcased Grieg’s skill at melodic development, and Argerich and Capuçon made the most of it. The long allegro finale finds Grieg in his familiar Norwegian folk-melody mode, and this inspiring performance makes you wonder why the work hasn’t become a basic repertory piece.

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