worst foot forward, please

by pieces of moments

I must be getting old. Why? Because I just finished listening to the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto (“Rach 3” in das music lingo). So, you see, for many, many years now I have basically stuck up my nose at the core repertoire, especially for the piano (and especially piano concertos), mostly because there’s just so much else from which to choose and it seemed stupid to me that everyone kept playing the same 10 pieces where there were 1,000,000,000.

There are several things I hold against the so-called “Romantic Era,” not the least of which is the profound, unnerving, hunch that something is rotten and smells of kitsch (oh, common, I’m entitled to my opinion as much as you) far too much of the time. But here I am, sitting here thinking about how much I adore (okay, I’m obsessed with) Martha Argerich when I came upon her performing the Rach 3. The only reason I was inclined to hit play on that specific piece of music was due to the performer being Martha. Goodness knows that as beautiful as the piece can be, I have heard enough versions to put me to sleep for, well, for a long time. Thus, I usually avoid listening to it like one avoids sketchy looking people that sneeze frequently.

So get this: I basically added my own soundtrack of explosively uttered expletives that syncopated, sputtered, and gasped parallel to the sounds emitting from my speakers. Seriously, people. I mean, really. This is what interpretation does for you – it grabs your face within its hot hands, examines your heart to see if you’re worthy, then when you pass the test it grabs you by the hand and leads you off to lands you never knew existed. You return utterly changed.

In other words, I think the Rach 3 is forever ruined for me now. Even if I decided to finally face it in a practice room this astounding sonic universe built by the bare hands of Martha will haunt me. It’s like Brahms having writers block in the face of attempting a symphony, for who was to even think of “improving” upon the structure that Beethoven made so fully and truly his own? Cowardly and heartless I would stand in the face of that score, in the shadow of this interpretation. Maybe I’ll end up like Brahms and not accomplish this task until age 43.

What makes this interpretation so absolutely stunning is the unmitigated abandon in her attack. It’s almost as if the keyboard has become an ocean and notes fly and flail this way and that like little boats on the tempestuous waters – hanging on for dear life. It’s sink or swim time, no one is tossing you a life jacket because those don’t exist.

Russell Sherman, the Distinguished Artist-In-Residence at my alma mater, New England Conservatory, once said something fabulous (doesn’t he always, though?) regarding interpretation, about how it’s best to put your “worst” foot forward. In other words, perfection (your “best” foot forward) is not the goal. Perfection is the stereotypical image of a house with a white picket fence. It’s boring. The goal is to make it unmistakably your vision. Contrast the white picket fence and house with every nail, flower, and blade of grass in place with the unfinished La Sagrada Família. Now you’re getting the idea, aren’t you?

Martha’s interpretation is messy. There is elongation, compression, rushed notes pushed so close together they begin to brush against an intimation of microtonality; if these notes were yellow and blue on their own, you’re now hearing a sea of green. It’s a testament to the conductor (Riccardo Chailly) and the orchestra (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra) that they so seamlessly follow, pull, coax, argue, and blend the entire way through. It’s like listening to a schizophrenic’s inner world with voices talking all at once, rattling about enclosed within the boundary of a single skull, sifting through the funnel of a single mind.

What strikes me, also, to return to the idea of the Romantic, is maybe the problem is really the proliferation of terribly yawn worthy performances of this eras contribution to the world’s musical oeuvre, and not particularly the works themselves. (?) I mean, to be romantic is to be unhinged, so what’s with all these merely simmering interpretations when they should be beyond their boiling points, bubbling and splattering, or less like prim button down shirts and more like insane deconstructed ball gowns with seams exposed from every angle?

Let’s get real. Be messy.

Listen to the entrance of the piano here (at 2:32 on the clock), in the sublime (I know, right?! check me out calling the Rach 3 sublime) second movement of the concerto:

Go ahead and take a moment to let it all sink in if you need. Wasn’t that amazing? Did you hear that super tight compression between 2:35-2:37? If you didn’t feel something from listening to that, well, you’re on your own.

I’m not going to put all the parts to this performance up, but I will list them for your convenience (you’re welcome, oh, and if you’re hoping for this on CD, you’re in luck). Just, you know, give it some respect if you’re gonna listen, and set aside time to just sit down and let it wash over you. No trying to get that stain off your counter whilst listening, please. We call that hearing, but not listening.

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3

Martha Argerich, Piano

Riccardo Chailly and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Recorded in 1982.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5