Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan Take Piano Duo to New Level

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Prokofiev for Two (DG)

I’m just about old enough to remember a time when piano duos were a thing – pairs who travelled the world playing nothing but four hand. I even had an adventurous young friend who made it her business to sleep with both members of a duo, just to see if it disrupted them.

Whatever happened to the piano duo? The last to make a splash were the Labeque sisters, and they go back to the early 1980s. What we get nowadays are ad hoc pairings of global soloists, who team up as and when they feel like it. No matter: music does not get more exciting in modern times than Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan on opposing pianos.

The percussive opening of Romeo and Juliet is so feral you can almost hear the piano wires begging for mercy. Not clear which of the pair makes the most noise, but they are in this as much for competition as collaboration – and it just gets better and better. The skittering feet of the Morning Dance hit your ears like cinema verité and the succeeding Quarrel growls from grump to snarl just like a marital spat. You can’t help feeling that these two have lived out every romantic drama in the Shakespearian playbook. And the tenderness of Morning Serenade has that post-coital illusion that all will be well ever after.

The remaining transcriptions are from incidental music to Eugene Onegin, Pique Dame and War and Peace, each a veritable gem. Sometimes Argerich leads, sometimes Babayan. The effect is so spontaneous you wonder if any of this is pre-planned, or if the musicians are conscious that there are microphones listening in. Apparently, they tried out the recital at the Lucerne Festival and liked it so much they took it into studio. If all music was like this, there would be no sorrow in the world.

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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review.

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