Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan
Deutsche Grammophon’s Prokofiev for Two reveals profound rapport between Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan in irresistible transcriptions of Romeo and Juliet for two pianos
Pianists Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan, who first met in Brussels in 1991, have now recorded for Deutsche Grammophon two stunning selections from Prokofiev’s music for stage and screen in magnificent two-piano transcriptions by Babayan. Prokofiev for Two, set for release worldwide on 23 March 2018, features Babayan’s twelve-movement transcription of numbers from the ballet Romeo and Juliet and his seven-movement suite transcribed from the Russian composer’s incidental music for Hamlet and Eugene Onegin, film score for The Queen of Spades and opera War and Peace. The sense of mutual inspiration felt by these kindred spirits, palpable in their live performances together, is now captured for posterity in these recordings.
Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan first met in Brussels in 1991 when, on a whim, he looked her up in the phonebook and, to his own surprise, found her name and telephone number listed. His call from a phone box in the city started a strong friendship that led to numerous joint appearances in Europe and America. After one performance of Rachmaninov’s Suite No.2 and other works for two pianos, Babayan told Argerich of his dream to transcribe pieces from Romeo and Juliet for their next duo date. “She was very inspired by the idea,” he recalls. “It was the greatest pleasure – and an honour – to create something that we would play together.” Babayan’s take on Prokofiev, coupled with a suite of rarities from the composer’s stage and film music, can be heard in Prokofiev for Two, a compelling new Deutsche Grammophon album set for international release on 23 March 2018.
The freshly transcribed Prokofiev score received its premiere performance as part of the Martha Argerich Project at the 2013 Lugano Festival. Sergei Babayan subsequently added two movements to the work; he also shaped a suite of seven scintillating pieces for two pianos from Prokofiev’s incidental music to Eugene Onegin and Hamlet, soundtrack score for Mikhail Romm’s unrealised film The Queen of Spades, and the opera War and Peace. Argerich and Babayan have since performed this work together with the revised Romeo and Juliet suite several times, most recently in concert at Stuttgart’s Liederhalle last November.
Martha Argerich is already renowned for her interpretations of Prokofiev’s music. The Argentine-born artist, hailed as one of the greatest pianists of all time, included the composer’s turbulent Toccata in her Deutsche Grammophon recital debut album, recorded in 1960. She reinforced her international reputation seven years later with a landmark recording for the yellow label of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Claudio Abbado. “I have loved Prokofiev ever since I can recall,” notes Argerich. “And people think he loves me too – sometimes! I love the way Sergei [Babayan] plays Prokofiev and many other things. The first solo recital of his I heard was Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I was incredibly impressed by it. I very much liked his proposal that we should play his transcription of Romeo and Juliet and feel very honoured that he dedicated it to me.”
Babayan’s love for Prokofiev, like Argerich’s, is deeply rooted, dating back to his childhood in Armenia and student days at the Moscow Conservatoire. Having left the USSR for the first time in 1989, he settled in the US. Time and again, Babayan has paid tribute to Prokofiev, playing several of his piano concertos with Valery Gergiev, including at the 2015 BBC Proms in a monumental concert with the London Symphony Orchestra featuring all five of the works.
His new Prokofiev transcriptions are both dedicated to Martha Argerich. “This project happened because of my love for Prokofiev, my love for Martha and my love for the ballet Romeo and Juliet,” reflects Babayan. The idea of transcribing Romeo and Juliet first arose decades ago while he was studying Prokofiev’s colourful instrumentation in close detail with an orchestra. Already aware of Argerich’s playing, he was further inspired after hearing a pirate recording of her 1981 Carnegie Hall performance of the Ten Pieces Op.75 from Romeo and Juliet. “I listened and was immediately drawn to learn the cycle. But I felt that Prokofiev used chamber-like numbers for his selection of music for his transcription for solo piano. If you first became acquainted with the ballet through this piano score, you would never guess or understand the whole tragic, violent and dark nature of the original work. Of course, the ballet contains lyrical, romantic music, music filled with humour and dance movement. But it also contains music for the ‘Death of Tybalt’, music of love and hate.”
Believing it would be impossible for music of such powerful emotion to be conveyed by two hands, and aware of Prokofiev’s own fondness for transcription, Babayan felt driven to exploit the full expressive force and tonal richness of two pianos, creating a version that contains what Martha Argerich, with a wry laugh, calls “difficult and demanding” technical and musical challenges. Both musicians, however, agree that transcription is “an act of love”, and Babayan’s experience with Romeo and Juliet soon led him on to explore some of the composer’s lesser-known works and create the second suite on this album. As he points out, this music will be new to most listeners: for example, only fragments of the film score for The Queen of Spades have ever been performed or recorded. He underlines its imaginative and innovative qualities, adding, “I’m sure if Prokofiev had lived longer, he would have used the material for The Queen of Spades for a new movie, symphony, quartet or maybe even a piano duo. This music stayed on the shelf and it was my luck to hear it.”
Prokofiev for Two is driven by the passion and power of an ideal keyboard partnership. Martha Argerich considers playing in duo with Babayan to be “a thing of alchemy – a discovery”. For his part, Babayan says the experience of performing with Argerich is like joining a conversation with a divine being, one in which “you cannot be mundane or ordinary ... Martha will somehow pull out the best from you”.
SERGEI BABAYAN SIGNS EXCLUSIVE CONTRACT WITH DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON
“Sergei Babayan is a genius. Period.” Le Devoir
Sergei Babayan, hailed for his charismatic and emotionally charged artistry, has signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The new relationship was announced on 19 July 2018 at the Verbier Festival. Last March saw the release on the yellow label of Prokofiev for Two, an album of Babayan’s transcriptions of a dozen pieces from Romeo and Juliet and of excerpts from other works by the Russian composer, recorded in partnership with Martha Argerich. Now the 57-year-old Armenian-American pianist is set to expand his DG discography with a groundbreaking project that will pair Mozart piano sonatas with a variety of pieces from different periods. Future recordings will explore works by other composers essential to Sergei Babayan’s musical identity, Bach and Rachmaninov among them. The pianist’s plans will also reflect his profound knowledge of rarely heard repertoire, commitment to works by contemporary composers and skills as composer and arranger.
“I was first introduced to Deutsche Grammophon when I was fourteen,” comments Sergei Babayan, “through Martha Argerich’s recording of Chopin’s E minor Concerto. That formed me as a musician and to this day continues to be one of my guiding lights. This label represents the world and works of the artists I’ve admired most deeply throughout my life. Other recordings deeply etched in my mind from those early years are by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Vladimir Horowitz. To be a Deutsche Grammophon artist myself today is, for me, the highest possible privilege. I am deeply grateful to my destiny for giving me such a great honour.”
Babayan has been a regular guest at the Verbier Festival for years. Last year, in company with the young players of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, he gave a sensational performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.25 in C major. This summer, the breadth and depth of his repertoire are once again mirrored in his programmes, which span everything from music by Louis Couperin and Rameau to Pärt and Shostakovich. He will also join a galaxy of classical stars, Martha Argerich and his pupil Daniil Trifonov among them, for the Festival’s 25th-anniversary gala concert on 25 July.
Critical acclaim has followed Sergei Babayan since his victory in the 1989 Cleveland International Piano Competition. Le Figaro recently praised his “unequalled touch, perfectly harmonious phrasing and breathtaking virtuosity”, while Montreal’s Le Devoir declared that “Sergei Babayan is a genius. Period.” He began piano lessons in his native Armenia as a child and went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where his teachers included Mikhail Pletnev, Vera Gornostayeva and Lev Naumov. Following his move to the United States, he joined the Cleveland Institute of Music as artist-in-residence in 1992.
Babayan has built a distinguished career as concerto soloist, chamber musician and recitalist. He has appeared as soloist with many of the world’s leading orchestras, among them the London Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 2015 he joined the LSO and Valery Gergiev at the BBC Proms for a day-long survey of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos.
“Dazzling virtuosity, the utmost expressive honesty and exquisite eloquence belong to the essential ingredients that make Sergei Babayan’s playing so unique,” observes Dr Clemens Trautmann, President Deutsche Grammophon. “His creativity stems from both his virtuosic mastery of his instrument and his in-depth understanding of music and intellectual history. Away from the keyboard, Sergei is an incredibly inspiring communicator, a teacher who imparts knowledge with enormous energy and intelligence. His duo partnerships with Martha Argerich and Daniil Trifonov on Prokofiev for Two and Chopin Evocations underlined what we already knew about his musicianship, revealing the incredible depth of his passion and compassion as an artist. These qualities will also be a feature of his solo albums. We welcome him to the yellow label and are determined to share his artistic insights with the widest possible audience.”