The gloriously long hair is now mostly gray, but Martha Argerich possesses the energy of a teenager. Now 66, the legendary Argentinian pianist still plays with incredible clarity and power both benefiting mightily from a dynamic range that extends from thunder down to a barely audible whisper. The simple dexterity is nothing short of amazing, but the musicality she brought to Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, now, that's something you don't hear every day.
She came with the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra and conductor Charles Dutoit to the Harris Theater last night as part of the youth orchestra's tour, and in a world awash in youth orchestras, this one stands out for its cosmopolitan tone. (I compiled a brief list in the opening of this article.) Violins are bright and piercing, cellos don't resonate deeply; they're more like a chorus of light baritones. The woodwinds, well, it's hard to come to much of a conclusion on a single concert, but they don't seem to pride themselves on a finely blended ensemble. It's more a collection of soloists fighting for glory back there. The horns struggled often with pitch in both the concerto and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, but criticizing the horns for audible mistakes is the absolute hands-down easiest sport for a critic. I saw one violinist last night correcting a stand-partner who was hopelessly lost, but you couldn't hear her screwing up.
The orchestra is, on first hearing, a couple places higher on the achievement scale than the Civic Orchestra, but not at the level of Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Both of those play together more often with a single conductor than this festival and touring orchestra, so you have to give the Verbier group some praise for what it does do so well.
Dutoit and Symphonie Fantastique are practically synonymous, or they should be, so his calm authority came as no surprise. But the spectacular rage he brought the final movement won't be forgotten, nor will the insanely high level of control he wielded so that every line came through so clearly in that maelstrom.
Watching Dutoit conduct the accompanying instruments and letting the melody's players handle themselves is to see a conductor putting the piece front and center, and the way he manages to show how a piece is built without it turning into a dry exercise is always fascinating. This is the second time I've seen him do it with the Berlioz, and each time there's some detail turned up, some line given new prominence. This time it was the low strings and bass drum in the last movement playing offbeats to the Dies Irae that crescendoed with formidable menace.
With Argerich, she's 66, she's a ferocious technician, her phrasing is under such cool control that it takes your breath away, and she can play those twisting, exposed scales in the concerto's first movement entirely seamlessly, and, on top of it all, she never sounds clattery in a piece that lends itself to a mechanical approach. If we needed Seven Wonders of the Classical World, she must be near the top, so sure is her command of the instrument and the music. She sounded as if she were making up that concerto as she went along last night, casually moving from intricacy to chords that could create shockwaves.
She played two encores, Scarlatti's D minor sonata and Chopin's f-minor Mazurka, Op. 63, No.2. The Scarlatti showed off her impeccable technique again with its repeated notes, each of which had the exact same weight as the preceding one. For their part, the orchestra played the "Farandole" from Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite and Chabrier's España after Symphonie Fantastique. Both had that charm and dash that's the mark of great French orchestras, along with the Montreal Symphony under, of course, Charles Dutoit.