Review: Martha Argerich performs with Nezet-Seguin and L.A. Philharmonic

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There are wildly popular pianists (Lang Lang), beloved pianists (Emanuel Ax), deeply admired pianists (Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and charismatic wizards of the keyboard (Marino Formenti). And then there is Martha Argerich. She is our pianist of allure.

She doesn’t come our way often, but when she does, well, it’s almost always all about Martha. Thursday night, she played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and it was mostly about Martha.

For close to a half-century, this concerto has been, for her, a vehicle for seduction. The cover of her famous 1967 recording of it with Claudio Abbado shows two extraordinarily good-looking musicians (she, Argentine and 25; he, Italian and 33) looking as though they had just stepped out of a Truffaut film and gazing into each other’s eyes. The slow movement is maybe the sexiest thing Ravel ever wrote, and this was –- no maybe about it –- the sexiest performance it has ever received. In the fast final movement, Argerich is a dazzling vixen who can’t be caught.

She recorded Ravel’s concerto again with Abbado in 1984 with more worldliness; the sensuality is actually riper, but there is also a hint of wistfulness. Last week, she played the work in San Francisco with Michael Tilson Thomas. Accompanied by a skilled conductor -- who has been, like her, around the block and who seemed to anticipate her every keyboard dalliance -- the performance I heard felt almost as though it were a concerto of memories.


Things were a little different at Disney. This time, the conductor was the 34-year-old French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his L.A. Philharmonic debut. Argerich has, in recent years, been a mentor and champion of feisty young musicians who may remind her of her youth. It looks as though with Nézet-Séguin she has found another.

After slowly building his career in Montreal, Nézet-Séguin is now emerging on the world stage. Last summer at the Salzburg Festival, he conducted a production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” starring Rolando Villazón that is just out on DVD. This season, he became music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Holland and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. He has invitations from the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics and the Cleveland Symphony. He arrived in Los Angeles after making his Boston Symphony debut last month.

Thursday’s program began with Ravel’s “La Valse” and ended with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In everything, Nézet-Séguin -- who is flashy and hyper-expressive in his gestures -- got a sound I had never quite heard before from the Angelenos. It was lean, sleek, tart in the French manner, yet also very bold and forward. It reminded me of the sound of the Montreal Symphony during the Charles Dutoit era, but with more punch.

In complete command of everything, Nézet-Séguin brought out interesting details in every phrase. He quickly figured out what the orchestra could do and what Disney could do, and he went for an extreme dynamic range. Climaxes did, however, turn a bit brittle.

His interaction with Argerich was especially intriguing. Ravel began his concerto with a snap of percussion, and conductor and pianist were off like racehorse and rider. Argerich was the rider, but she challenged the conductor to be wild, seeming to take delight in being able to maintain her balance no matter what. Through it all, she was ever cool, tossing off ethereal trills, when required, with a flick of the wrist. The slow movement alone was worth the price of admission. She has not lost her art of seduction.

For an encore, the conductor joined Argerich at the keyboard in a brief excerpt from Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite in its four-hand arrangement. For all his cockiness at the podium, Nézet-Séguin, sitting next to Argerich and playing the second piano part, was like a proud but nervous schoolboy. The performance had considerable charm.

“La Valse” had a kind of charm as well in its suave parts and in that astonishing French sound Nézet-Séguin was able to achieve. But Shostakovich’s symphony was more troublesome. It had moments of great beauty. The young conductor wrung from the Fifth every ounce of emotion, and the composer gave him a lot to work with. Inner lines were illuminated. Orchestral colors were vivid, but little went beneath the showy surface.

Nézet-Séguin is a considerable virtuoso, able to slow down to a near stop and rush to finish with dazzling speed. The last movement was not Soviet triumphalism but mad fury.

For those who like to read consequence into coincidence, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was the first work that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for his debut, Nov. 11, 1984. He was 34, Nézet-Séguin’s age, when he became music director here.

Whatever that means, a young star -– and most likely a controversial one -- is clearly in the making.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $42 to $147. (323) 850-2000 or