Martha and Tony

MARTHA: “I hope he likes me,” says Martha Argerich of Robert Schumann, and it makes you think more intensely about both of them: this  elusive musician who moves through our world as though in a world of her own; this musician of the centuries past whose best music always seems to have him talking to himself in the way that finally led him to madness. When she plays his music there is, indeed, a closeness; two impenetrable boundaries seem to dissolve, to merge. I  thought of this before; there are a number of EMI discs of  Argerich playing Schumann – solo works or chamber music with friends, taken from live performances – that have that unusual quality of oneness that go beyond any other performances I have heard, and sometimes even make music I had once considered dul come alive.
   What this is all about is another of those documentary DVDs that have come along from the excellent offices of Naxos, Martha Argerich, Evening Talks by Georges Cachot.  Musically the film is a collecion of scraps of Argerich performances, none very long, but all of them interesting enough in their range: Martha at 15 coping with Liszt (in a recording that aroused the wonder of Vladimir Horowitz),; Martha dealing with Chopin in Warsaw in 1965 (where she would later create a stir, resigning from the 1980 Competition jury in protest over the downgrading of Ivo Pogorelic) ; Martha in  2001, gently impatient with the German chamber orchestra coping with her view of the Schumann Concerto. 
   The conversations are what holds the film together; they are soft, immensely appealing, not at all the Matha I would have epected from  say, that cannonade of a performance of Prok 3 she gave here last year. Director Gachot is – I assume that’s he – is an attractive interlocutor, and he has put fireball Martha at her ease. More accessible and self-revealing than I would have expected, she talks of her fear of Beethoven; she will never brave the mountain that is the Fourth Concerto, finding satisfaction in the milder-mannered Second.  I like what Alex Ross wrote about her, that “her native language is music.” She sounds like someone I would like to meet. I wouldn’t have thought so before.
TONY: I can’t leave the matter of Tony Palmer with that awful Puccini film I curled my lip at last week; his hourlong documentary of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs has me utterly undone. Yes, I know; Palmer has done everything imaginable to underscore the work’s arrogant appeal to the sentiments. The performance under David Zinman, with Dawn Uoshaw’s heartbreaking intoning of the graffiti texts (tiny, self-contained tragedies from the walls of prison camps, or so it says) runs entirely counter – in tempo, expression and mood – to the composer’s own recorded versions. Everything is wrong, yet everything works: the strange case of a composition with a double life.
   The astute documentarian, Palmer sees to it that none of this matters. Comfortable at his piano, Górecki intones all the proper phrases about oppression and redemption and the life of an illustrious one-composition composer. Palmer has him stumbling along snowy train tracks through the Auschwitz prison yard, and intersperses the playing of David Zinman’s orchestra with the horrors of boneyards and starving children. One shot I cannot forgive: a small African boy, his mouth wreathed in flies; fade to the sequins on Dawn Upshaw’s gown in exactly the same pattern. Enough!

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