The firebrand and the thinker -- a look at two outstanding pianists

Two of today's most acclaimed, popular younger-generation pianists are Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini. Both have captured the audiences' imaginations and intellects. Both have developed vociferous, dedicated followings and are considered, by critics and colleagues alike, two of the most interesting and masterly pianists of the day.

Simplifications are never entirely accurate, but one can generally state that Argerich is the firebrand, Pollini the thinker. Argerich breathes fire and poetry, has passion tempered with control and tremendous spontaneity. Pollini is a more noble, aloof, occasionally cold but always elegant musician who thinks his music through and plays it in one long time.

Argerich is decidedly most at home in the romantic literature, Pollini in the modern. Both excel, in their ways, in Chopin.

Argerich's programming always has a certain vigorous daring to it. At a recent New York Carnegie Hall recital, she programmed a Bach partita, Brahms's F-sharp minor Sonata, the third suite from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," and two Chopin pieces. Pollini, on the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series at Avery Fisher Hall, offered a more strenuous, rigorous program of the Berg Sonata , and three sets of Schonberg Klavierstucke (Op. 11, Op. 19, Op. 23). Following the entermission, he offer the "Tempest" and "Waldstein" sonatas of Beethoven.

Miss Argerich has recorded some Bach, and that disk was one of Deutsche Grammophon's biggest sellers last year. Pianists play Bach on the piano over the strenuous objections of purists -- a battle that will probably never be settled. Miss Argerich did not try to water down the sound of her Steinway. Rather she kept the various lines so clear one could hear all the voices of fugue -- one was constantly in awe of her rhythmic clarity. Overall, one was swept away by her combination of exuberance and control.

Her Brahms was full of volatile bravura and poetry, when she was not swamping the music in excessive velocity and energy. Lazar Berman does not make much of a case for the Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet" music on the keyboard, even though he is one of the finest Prokofians of the day. Miss Argerich also knows her Prokofiev, but for all her imagination and pianistic color, she could not make the suite sound less than tedious.

But then she launched into her Chopin -- a ravishing account of the Nocturne in E flat, Op. 55, No. 2 and the G-minor Ballade, Op. 23. She is a Chopin player to the manner born, as anyone who knows her recording of the 24 "Preludes" can verify. That record (DG 2530 721) not only offers marvelous accounts of each "Prelude" but also melds them into a coherent cycle. Her remarkable accounts of the Second and Third Sonatas have now been put onto one record (DG 2531 289), though to get them way would be to miss her spectacular account of the "Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise" featured on DG 2530 530 along with the Second Sonata.

Another facet of Miss ARgerich's gifts can be heard on an all-Ravel recital (DG 2530 540) that is one of the great piano records of the past decade. Of her concerto albums, the recent coupling of the Schumann A minor with the Chopin No. 2 (DG 2531 042 -- Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra) and a coupling of the Prokofiev Third and the Ravel G major (DG 139349 -- the London Symphony under Claudio Abbado) are not to be missed.

Mr. Pollini's recorded output is broader in its spectrum, as are his programs. At AVery Fisher Hall, the audience grumbled after a glut of Schonberg , yet no one i know of playing today gets as much sheer music and beauty out of these pieces. If anyone is to convince an audience about the validity and worth of these piano pieces, it is Pollini. And his account of the Berg was utterly irresistible -- plangent, eloquent, haunting.

He fared not so well in the Beethoven -- technically marvelous but lacking the tonal variety and probing exploration that animated the Berg and Schonberg. The "Tempest" proved a bit chilly and unmagical, and emotionally reticent. The "Waldstein" was stunningly built, yet lacking in depth, insight, and those marvelous searching vistas others find in this music.

But this can be said of much of his recorded output. His account of the Schumann C major Fantasy is now considered a recording classic (DG 2530 379) -- stunningly played, vividly, nobly interpreted.His recording of all the Chopin "Etudes" (DG 2530 291) is as staggering a digital display as will be found on vinyl. The more one hears them, the more awesome becomes the feat. Pollini may chisel his musical concepts in ice, but it is a thing of tremendous beauty nonetheless.

One can ponder his views of the Schonberg on Dg 2530 531, though they were all recorded some six years ago and are not as searching and probing as his performances at Avery fisher Hall. In the concerto literature, he and Claudio Abbado have tackled the Bartok First and Second Concertos (DG 2530 901) in exceptional fashion. He and Abbado have also recorded the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. DG 2530 790 offers a constantly engrossing, sometimes rather cool, always noble and elegant account.

Nothing replaces hearing a performer live. One can treasure recordings, appreciate the chance to hear favored artists in repertoire one might not hear in a concert hall, but no microphone can capture the chemistry of the artist with his audience. No microphone does justice to Miss Argerich's subtlety and tonal color, or Mr. Pollini's noble mastery of the keyboard. We are indeed fortunate that DG records these two artists, for that company seems to have the best average for good piano recordings, one of the most difficult musical ins truments to record.

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