A full house at the Sheldonian on a freezing Saturday night saw the Argentinian-born Martha Argerich play Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto with the Oxford Philharmonic in a Russian programme. Ms Argerich has a long and glittering association with this music. I have a CD of the concerto, transferred from vinyl, that she recorded with Claudio Abbado in the late 1960s for Deutsche Grammophon, and here she is at 76 playing the same piece live in Oxford. It was no surprise that through the medium of her twinkling fingers the concerto came up fresh as the daisies adorning the bouquet presented to her before she left the auditorium. Artists of Ms Argerich's stature and age are generally jealous of their reputation, and in her particular case she's known for being inordinately self-critical.
Twin clarinets got us under way in a plaintive little tune before the soloist entered with a volley of rapid-fire runs, fiendishly difficult, that frame the first movement. These were perfectly poised. Even at a dazzlingly fast tempo, Ms Argerich was in consummate control.This is a piece whose whimsical contrasts of tenderness, virtuosity and even grotesquerie might have been made for her as from the explosive start she produced a flow of crotchets that settles into the second theme, with the unusual introduction of castanets in the background. Despite the prominence of the solo part, the orchestra rises above subsidiary accompaniment to play a very active part in this work, and Marios Papadopoulos, always the most sympathetic of conductors in partnering his soloist, had his players emphasizing the contrast between Prokofiev's lyrical passages with jaunty disonances. In the simple theme and variations of the second movement, the soloist has a short passage of interplay with a trumpet and then with the whole brass section before reaching an almost nocturnal end. The most telling moment in the finale was a simple, quasi-bluesy melody at its heart that Ms Argerich played with jazzy timing. The subsequent build-up of tension towards the pounding conclusion left the audience gasping at last.
Unusually for this famously reluctant receiver of applause, Ms Argerich, in long, black, flowery dress, not only gave us an encore (by Chopin - an Etude?) but two encores (something Spanish or even S. American was it? Why don't givers of encores name the piece to the audience before plunging into them?), and then took the applause. So sustained and lavish was it that it amounted almost to a performance in itself. How many other pianists today inspire such devotion?
After the interval we heard a very brief new piece by Giulia Monducci, who my colleague from Sight and Sound pointed out was actually the oldest of the evening's three composers at the time they wrote the music played tonight. Having a performer of such charisma as Martha Argerich can be a bit of a mixed blessing for the programme planner if the rest of the evening is not to become the mere setting for the jewel, especially when, as here with Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919), the music comes from a similar expressive world as the concerto. Happily, Firebird is no one's idea of a filler. I think of it as a deft pre-figuring of Rite of Spring. 'Kaschei's Dance' was truly infernal with daunting sonic punch, and the final section glowed yet sidestepped bombast. This Firebird served almost as a mini-concerto for orchestra, with the horns and clarinets prominent, and principal bassoonist John Orford produced a gentle, silken lead-in to the 'Berceuse'.