Album Title: Chopin: Piano concerto No.1 in E minor & Liszt: Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat major
Performers: Martha Argerich, piano / Claudio Abbado, conductor / London Symphony Orchestra
Label and #: Speakers Corner DGG SLPM 139383 (LP)
Running time: 38'01"/17'36"
Walthamstow Town Hall, London / February, 1968

This 1968 recording was re-issued in CD format by DGG in 1996 as part of their hot-selling series "The Originals - Legendary recordings from the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue". Music lovers all know why this particular one deserves to be a legend. And vinyl lovers will treasure this Speakers Corner re-issue on LP. As legend has it, Argentinean-born wunderkind Martha Argerich wowed the audience of Teatro Colón Buenos Aires at the age of eight (and those who tuned in to the live broadcast on Radio El Mundo in 1949) with the Mozart D minor Concerto and first Beethoven Concerto, Bach G major French Suite as interlude.

In 1957 at the age of sixteen and within three weeks, she won first prize in both the Geneva and Busoni competitions . The crowning glory came in the 1964 Chopin competition when Argerich swept the first prize as well as special prizes for interpretation of mazurka and waltzes. Few pianists of her generation enjoyed the same status of a cult figure admired by cognoscenti and music lovers alike. The momentum never stopped even though she is currently more devoted to chamber music. But as a soloist in those days, sometimes I wondered how she managed to make such a big splash with such a relatively small repertoire? The simple answer is that when she did what she did best in her own unique way, every repertoire became an event. And the few classical and romantic concertos she does and loves best include Beethoven's Nos. 1 and 2 (recorded 8 and 7 times respectively), Tchaikovsky's First (5 times), Schumann's A minor (15 times), Ravel's G major (10 times), Prokofiev's No.3 (7 times) and of course the Chopin No.1 (14 times) and the Liszt No.1 (6 times) featured here. (She recorded Chopin's No.2 only 4 times and has never recorded Liszt's No.2.) This pertains to commercial recordings as of January 5, 2009.

It's a revelation to compare Argerich's Chopin No. 1 with Gina Bachauer's 1963 recording accompanied by Antal Dorati conducting the same orchestra [Mercury 434374]. While Argerich followed her heart, Bachauer followed her art. Argerich is youthful, personal and intimate, Bachauer heroic and grand. There's a historical explanation. Bachauer once had the opportunity to get personal advice from Rachmaninov when he was touring Europe. Rachmaninov made Bachauer realize that the two Chopin concertos were "symphonies with piano". Contrary to popular belief, Rachmaninov thought highly of Chopin's orchestration, a thought apparently shared by Dorati whose collaboration with Bachauer (and her big-line phrasing) had taken on an unusually grand symphonic dimension.

Abbado also left us no excuses to complain about the inadequacy in Chopin's orchestration. Had Carl Tausig heard this, he would have thought twice about his re-orchestration. Abbado was more articulated and for the two outer movements adopted a swifter tempo than Dorati. The DGG
recording team also extruded more textural details from the London Symphony than Mercury. Bachauer is famous for her "enormous technical solidity... a tone so well manufactured, weighed and measured that it sounds enormous." (Harold C. Schoenberg). Indeed, Bachauer is well-versed, well-polished, well-balanced yet never sounds artificial or calculating. For decades, this has been the perfect epitome of how Chopin concertos should be played. From Rubinstein and Fou Ts'ong to Zimerman and Perahia, all their give and take -- with the exception of Cziffra -- has contributed to the Chopin image we've known and loved.

Then Argerich arrived. She went to the extreme arguably more even than Cziffra and not just in two directions. She pushed outwards and pulled inwards at the same time. Her free spirit would not filter out any emotional spikes and surges. The tempestuous moments aren't reined in. The passionate moments are unapologetically indulgent yet with good taste. The lyrical moments are limpid and the silvery notes are like La Sylphide's pointe work on the crystal clear water of a moonlit lake.

The Liszt concerto offers more emotional extremities with contrasts of ecstasy and melancholy. Argerich takes us through peaks and troughs with the unreserved vehemence of her fast and furious octaves, pulsating vitality and sensibility to tonal nuances. Under the baton of Abbado, the symphonic architectural design of the work turns out to be free flowing and improvisational. That naturally lent itself to some of the most memorable and magical dialogues between soloist and orchestra in recording history.

Speakers Corner's 180g pressing is virtually free of surface noise, rich in sonority and full in dynamic range. The original DGG recording, though not particularly rich in bass and lower midrange as usual, has captured all the details that allow you to appreciate how spontaneously and adroitly Argerich handled the intricate inner voices with the supple lightness of her pearly touch.