Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich in works by Prokofiev and Mozart at the Wigmore Hall

27 February 2022

Four hands are better than two when it comes to tackling pieces arranged by Babayan. 

Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich

Sergei Babayan & Martha Argerich (Photo: Deutsche Grammophon)

The beauty of this concert lay not only in the opportunity it presented to hear two first rate pianists perform together, but in the programming itself. This is because, with the honourable exception of a Mozart Sonata that began the recital’s second half, the entire evening consisted of works by Prokofiev that had been arranged by Sergei Babayan himself.

The pianos themselves were not arranged in the more usual formation whereby the curved sides of each are ‘locked’ together. Here, the two keyboards were lined up virtually in a straight line so that the pianos went off in opposite directions from this central point. Babayan and Martha Argerich practically sat next to each other, albeit facing in opposite directions, and although this meant that each had to look to their left or right to see the other, this was probably easier than having to glance over scores and two pianos as is required by the more standard layout. It also meant that neither piano carried its lid as this would have channeled the sound of the rear piano in the wrong direction, while placing one on the front piano might have made its sound feel more dominant and blocked many people’s view of the pianist at the back.

The first half featured Babayan’s arrangement of 12 Movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (1935-36). Two pianos will always create a very different sound world to a full orchestra and the skill of Babayan’s arrangement lay in his ability to recognise this and play the fact to his advantage. It could broadly be characterised by three approaches, although there was much overlap between them. The first was epitomised by those moments that, in terms of sound, seemed reasonably close to the original. The second involved those where it would probably have been impossible to have reproduced the original sound that closely and so Babayan found ways to create interesting parallels to it. The third occurred when it seemed that Babayan consciously decided to create a sound that was very different from the original, thus maximising on what the piano as an instrument could deliver.

In this way, the first of the twelve movements, the Prologue, possessed a heavy, leaden feel from which one constantly expected to hear a more sprightly line arise. It never did, however, which was deliberate on Babayan’s part. The Dance of the Knights that followed generated a far more multifaceted sound in which there was strong interaction between the weight of the basic melody and the lighter, glistening elements as the lead line was also exchanged between the two pianists. Other highlights included the Morning Dance, in which the rhythms and precision were notable; the Gavotte in which the reduced instrumentation may even have handed it a greater profoundness; Juliet as a Young Girl where the tingle brought to it really did speak of youth and innocence, and the Dance of Five Couples, which acutely captured its tumbling and rumbustious nature as well a sense of urgency.

“…the entire evening consisted of works by Prokofiev that had been arranged by Sergei Babayan himself”

The final movement, Tybalt’s Death, was particularly skilful as the same heaviness that was found in the Prologue was here complemented by light, ethereal sounds that only made the realities of the situation all the more shocking. Throughout it was a joy to watch Babayan who sat at the front getting stuck into a piece that, for obvious reasons, he understood so well. The work could on occasions feel more brutal than in its original form, but it also proved very multilayered and possessed a touch of humour, as was highlighted by the wry smiles that he and Argerich exchanged between some of the movements.

Following an excellent performance of Mozart’s Sonata in D for 2 Pianos K448 (1781) after the interval, the pianists swapped places so that Argerich sat at the front for Babayan’s arrangements of various Prokofiev compositions. These included The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father from Incidental music from Hamlet Op. 77 (1937-38), the Pushkin Waltz in C sharp minor from Pushkin Waltzes Op. 120 (1949) and Natasha and Andrei’s Valse from War and Peace Op. 91 (1941-43; revised 1946-52). One of the delights was hearing music with which we may not be that familiar since Prokofiev was instructed to cease work on his opera Eugene Onegin Op. 71 (1936), from which we heard the Mazurka and Polka, before it ever reached the stage. We similarly heard the Polonaise and Idée fixe from The Queen of Spades Op. 70 (1936), which constituted a score that he wrote for a film that was never made.

These were not merely good arrangements that we might have expected any pianist of such a high calibre to be able to produce, but rather exceptional ones. Another wonderful feature of the performances was the interaction on display between Argerich and Babayan. Obviously, they were well rehearsed, but there was a real sense in which the two were exploring together just how far they could take these pieces, as the communication between them was tangible. Quite the measure of how much there was to conquer in the arrangements was illustrated by the fact that even knowing when to turn the page at the right time for the pianist was not always easy, although both people charged with doing so acquitted themselves extremely well. All of these works were played without pause so that they created a continuous piece, which only helped to build up a rush of excitement. It was also a last minute decision to change the order in which the pieces were played, but this proved to be a masterstroke as it led to the second half culminating in the tremendous Idée fixe from The Queen of Spades

Sergei Babayan and Marta Argerich’s 2018 recording Prokofiev For Two, featuring all of the arrangements that were performed in this concert, is available on the Deutsche Grammophon label

For details of all of Babayan and Argerich’s recordings and future events visit their respective websites. 

For details of all upcoming events at the Wigmore Hall visit its website.

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Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich in works by Prokofiev and Mozart at the Wigmore Hall