The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, who are currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of their foundation by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, are practically annual visitors to the BBC Proms. The last time they performed with Marta Argerich at the festival, however, was 2016 when she played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major. On this occasion, the piece in question was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, and the performance was electric as it felt eccentric in the best sense of the word.
There was no doubting the attack that she brought to the work, and in this respect she achieved the best of all possible worlds. Many performers have provided far gentler renditions, but Argerich’s genius was to bring such power to the piece while also ensuring that the colours, textures and nuances shone through to an enormous degree. In this sense, she displayed the same levels of subtlety as many other pianists could only achieve by taking a softer approach, and all this meant that the odd imperfection along the way did not matter in the slightest. The orchestra also worked seamlessly with her, with Barenboim clearly playing a key role in understanding just how Argerich was ‘leading’ the piece, so that he could ensure its sound remained in keeping with hers in every sense.
The evening began with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony No. 8 in B minor, in which the orchestra revealed extremely pleasing playing in terms of the smoothness and balance that it brought to its sound. By the same token, it possibly lacked a little in the monumentality that it can also be important to bring to the piece, although the playing seemed very committed and the Albert Hall’s quite unforgiving acoustic (for this type of piece) may have been primarily responsible for parts of the hall not quite feeling the full impact. Nevertheless, that the power we did feel seemed so clearly defined proves just how accomplished the performance was, and there were some very fine contributions from individual players over the course of the piece.
The second half of the concert featured Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, which revealed a very astute grasp of the score as it rendered the music deriving from the Mazovian folk melody in the first movement, and the arioso in the second, with particularly notable levels of precision and prowess. On this occasion, Barenboim did not make a speech, as he is inclined to do on his Proms visits, but the encore, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, was so well executed that it sent everyone out into the night feeling just as inspired as if he had.