By Donald Manildi
"I didn't want to be a pianist in the first place. I still don't want to be, but it is the only thing that I can do, more or less," says Martha Argerich, whose phenomenal pianistic command and utterly natural, spontaneous approach to both the instrument and the music have made her a legend in the profession.
Few members of the capacity audience at Carnegie Hall on the evening of March 25, 2000, are likely to soon forget the occasion. For the first time in nearly 19 years, Martha Argerich was scheduled to perform a solo program-half of one, at least-and this was more than enough to create a palpable sense of electricity in the auditorium. True, in recent years the Argentine pianist had become a fairly regular visitor to New York, in spite of her reputation for frequent last minute cancellations. During the late 1990s, for instance, she appeared several times as soloist with the visiting Montreal Symphony and as a sonata partner of cellist Mischa Maisky. This time, however, she would offer solo repertory of Bach, Chopin, and Prokofiev and join forces with the Juilliard Quartet and with fellow pianist Nelson Freire. Further elevating the charged atmosphere was Anthony Tommasini's interview with Argerich in The New York Times on the morning of the concert, where it was disclosed that the pianist had been undergoing medical treatments at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in California; proceeds from her concert would benefit the Institute.
Of course the high strung energy of Argerich's pianism, and her utterly natural, spontaneous approach to both the instrument and the music, had already made her a legend in the profession (her American debut took place some 34 years earlier). Unsurprisingly, she was greeted by a standing, cheering ovation the moment she set foot on stage. Argerich wasted no time plunging into the Bach Partita in C minor, followed by two major Chopin pieces and Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata. Favoring, as is her wont, headlong tempos, gleaming yet highly nuanced tonal qualities, and a fierce concentration on the matters at hand, Argerich left no doubt that her pianistic command was as phenomenal as ever. If some of her tempos occasionally caused a slight blurring of texture, it seemed to matter little; this was hardly the occasion for pedantic nitpicking. In fact it was nearly impossible not to be swept along with the tide, and never more so than in the motor-driven, truly shattering Precipitato finale of the Prokofiev. Here Argerich tore into the score with a recklessness-and accuracy-that had to be heard to be believed.
In the program's second half, Argerich shared the congenial company of the Juilliard Quartet for a resplendent (if slightly breathless) Schumann E-flat Quintet, after which she was joined by one of her several duo-piano partners, the Brazilian virtuoso Nelson Freire. Their superbly integrated ensemble and uncanny blend of color and drama were ideally suited to Ravel's La Valse (one of the duo's specialties). Two Argerich/Freire encores were hardly enough to satisfy the audience; only the stage crew's removal of the two Steinways curbed the vociferous ovations.
Yet a burning question remained in many listeners' minds as they filed out of the hall: Exactly why would a pianist of Argerich's incomparable powers elect to avoid solo recitals so completely, confining herself to orchestral engagements and chamber-music collaborations? Behind that enigma, and hovering over Argerich's "historic return" to her solo repertoire (whether it be temporary or long term) is a complex network of factors that go back to the pianist's early years in Buenos Aires.
Born on June 5, 1941, Argerich began piano lessons while still in nursery school. Her first significant teacher was Vincenzo Scaramuzza, with whom she worked between the ages of 5 and 10. The young pianist played several concertos (including the Mozart D minor and the Beethoven First) with a local orchestra and garnered a great deal of attention. Yet the acclaim turned out to be a mixed blessing. "I always hated playing in public," Argerich admitted in a 1992 interview with Alberto Portugheis. "Even as a small child I could not stand being on the stage. I had to be pushed onto the platform and I just ran to the piano, played and ran off as fast as I could. I never got over this intense dislike of being on a stage. As a small child it was the immense space around me which made me feel so alone."
After four additional years of study with Francisco Amicarelli (a former Scaramuzza pupil), it was decided that Argerich's next step should be further study in Europe. Argerich and her mother then embarked for Vienna, where she began 18 months of private study with Friedrich Gulda. His personality and guidance proved to be decisive. "Looking back now," Argerich said in 1992, "I can say that I learned from Gulda more than from anyone else and that he had the greatest influence on my playing." (Gulda, incidentally, died on January 27, 2000, two months before Argerich's Carnegie Hall performance; she was present at his funeral.) Argerich also seized opportunities for brief periods of coaching with Madeleine Lipatti (widow of Dinu), Abbey Simon, and Nikita Magaloff. It was Magaloff who helped prepare the 16-year-old Argerich for the Geneva and Busoni Competitions, held just two weeks apart in 1957. Much to her astonishment, she easily carried off first prizes in both events. As Argerich told Dean Elder in 1978, "I didn't expect to get through the preliminaries. I was expecting to be eliminated, so I never worked from one round to the next, you know. I didn't want to practice if I wasn't going to get through, so when my name was announced I would go on and practice for the next round. I was always thinking no."
As a result of her competition victories, Argerich found herself heavily booked for several years of European concert engagements. "That caused some problems for me," Argerich recalled in an interview with Allan Kozinn published in 1981. "I wasn't prepared psychologically for the pressure of touring. Nor was I prepared for the boredom of traveling." The pianist also acknowledged a general dissatisfaction with her playing "because I wasn't practicing, and at times I wasn't at all prepared." In spite of these negative elements, Argerich's performances were rapturously received by both critics and audiences.
Next stop: the Hannover studios of Deutsche Grammophon, where Argerich, during two days in July 1960, made her recording debut playing solo pieces of Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, and Prokofiev. The disc did not make its way to American shops until April of 1962, but critics immediately greeted it with enthusiasm: Argerich's playing of the Liszt Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody and Prokofiev's Toccata, in fact, was compared favorably with the classic Horowitz versions of those works. (Horowitz himself later heard the recording and expressed his genuine admiration.) There was no doubt that a major pianist had arrived on the international scene, and further recordings-not to mention an American debut-were eagerly awaited. But after that auspicious beginning, nothing. Silence. Sensing that she needed the right kind of professional advice, Argerich curtailed her concert schedule and approached Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli for lessons. After many months and no more than four lessons with the temperamental Italian virtuoso, during which "something special did not happen, I must say," Argerich moved to New York "and spent another year completely away from the piano."
During this low point of her career, according to Argerich, she occupied most of her time watching television and contemplating the option of becoming a secretary. She emerged from this slump in 1964 after an aborted last-minute entry (arranged by her mother) in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Competition-for which Argerich said she was completely unprepared. Yet at that moment she had the good luck to meet the Polish-born pianist Stefan Askenase and his wife, who were living in Brussels. Over the next few months, Argerich took informal lessons with Askenase. But it was Mrs. Askenase's presence that had a totally rejuvenating effect on the younger pianist, who later confessed during Dean Elder's interview: "She gave me strength and security. . . . [B]ecause of her I started to play again, and almost immediately I went to the Chopin Competition. If it hadn't been for her, I wouldn't be playing now."
En route to Warsaw, Argerich made a detour to London for her British debut, then proceeded to sweep the field at the 1965 Chopin event and immediately resumed her concert and recording schedule. In January 1966, she finally played her American debut recital at Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall in New York. (Was it merely coincidence that all the solos she played at Carnegie last March were also on the debut program?) In 1980, Argerich returned to Warsaw, this time as one of the judges for the Chopin Competition. She attracted headlines when she resigned from the jury to protest its failure to advance Ivo Pogorelich to the finals.
Argerich had now hit her stride in terms of engagements, and while her busy itinerary did become pockmarked with occasional cancellations, that only added to the mystique which began to surround her, as did a two-season sabbatical from concertizing in the mid-1980s. During that decade, concertgoers began to notice that Argerich had apparently ceased playing solo recitals. Her orchestral bookings continued at a steady pace, but otherwise she obviously preferred musical collaborations with a number of friends and colleagues. The list of those is long and impressive: it includes pianists Nelson Freire, Stephen Kovacevich, Nicolas Economou, Alexis Golovin, and Alexandre Rabinovitch; flutist James Galway; violinists Ruggiero Ricci, Ivry Gitlis, and (especially) Gidon Kremer; cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and (especially) Mischa Maisky.
The "immense space" that had always surrounded Argerich on stage during recitals had grown ever larger and, knowing what is best for herself, she refused to be subjected to such an ordeal. She elaborated on her feelings in conversation with Alberto Portugheis: "This [came] from the fact that as a child I never went to school. No one understood how much I suffered, having to practice for hours, always being on my own, not able to share with other children of my own age. On the stage I had that strange feeling of being separated, stranded. For me the audience is not company-it is a mass of people, nomatter how friendly and enthusiastic. I have a great need for company when I am on the platform, and making music with other people gives me that feeling of company. In this way I don't feel the solitude."
Fortunately for her admirers, Argerich never developed any particular antipathy toward the recording studio (except for her avoidance of solo repertory in recent years), and the vast majority of her discs vividly conveys the freshness and vitality of her playing. Her impressive catalogue of recorded performances-totaling about 50 CDs-is divided among Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Philips, Teldec, RCA, and Sony. (A few entrepreneurs have boldly brought out unauthorized CDs of live Argerich material.) Several video releases have appeared that preserve her artistry at various stages of her career. It is virtually impossible to single out highlights from such an abundance of supercharged pianism; in some cases (such as the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1) there are multiple, contrasting versions available, generating much discussion as to their relative merits. Recently Argerich added some new concertos to the list (Prokofiev No. 1, Bartók No. 3) and allowed EMI to bring out several superlative live performances taped in Amsterdam over 20 years ago.
Although her discography does provide a representative cross-section of her repertory, Argerich has also played many additional solo pieces and concertos that cannot be found among her approved recordings. A tantalizing sampling of such works would include the Sonatas K. 310 and 333 plus several concertos of Mozart; Beethoven's Sonatas Op. 10, No. 3, and Op. 101 as well as his Third and Fourth Concertos; various Chopin Etudes, Nocturnes, and Mazurkas and the First and Third Ballades; Schumann's Toccata; the Brahms Sonata in F-sharp minor; excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet; the Debussy Estampes; the Grieg and Stravinsky Concertos and Liszt's Concerto No. 2 and Totentanz. High-quality broadcast tapes of most of these exist, and if Argerich cannot be coaxed into the studio to document her interpretations, there is always hope that the concert performances might someday be authorized for release.
A rational explanation for the frenzied responses of Argerich's audience is not difficult to find. For one thing, the raven-haired pianist's personal magnetism on stage is undeniable. The effortlessness of her technique, of course, is one of the most oft-mentioned elements of her artistic persona. But once her performance is underway, it is clear that she is operating on a loftily instinctive level of musicianship where spontaneity rather than calculation is the order of the day. Furthermore, her listeners inevitably sense in her approach a strong element of risk-taking. Aaron Copland could have been describing this phenomenon exactly as it applies to Argerich when he wrote in 1951, "A live performance should be just that-live to all the incidents that happen along the way, colored by the subtle nuances of momentary emotion, inspired by the sudden insights of public communication. Wonderful performances can be of many different kinds, but the virtuoso performance that is breathlessly exciting, to my mind, always implies this almost-but-not-quite out-of-control quality, the antithesis of the well-rehearsed execution." Clearly, Argerich is one of the few pianists active today capable of satisfying the public's hunger for that elusive extra dimension.
In the wake of her triumphant return to the solo piano literature, there are many indications that Argerich has reached a new peak in a career that has now spanned nearly five decades. She continues to exult in her chosen repertory, creating an aura of freshness and renewal at each performance. She hints at the possibility of new ventures and seems keen to continue a steady flow of recordings. In this country, her engagements include a week-long stint with the New York Philharmonic in early May 2001, joining conductor Charles Dutoit for the Beethoven Concerto No. 2.
Having observed our Musician of the Year's ascent from the beginning, Musical America looks forward to further revelations by this extraordinary artist. The New York Times critic Bernard Holland expressed it well when he said, "We never know quite where she will lead us. She is an artist of becoming. Her phrases are charged with unstable energy, driven toward resolution and relief. We fly along behind her, touched and moved."
Donald Manildi is Curator of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland (College Park). He has contributed several hundred reviews, articles, and discographies to International Piano Quarterly and the American Record Guide. Also an active performer, his CD "Pianists As Composers" was issued in 1999 by Elan. Most recently he has edited for publication the collected essays of the late critic Jan Holcman, under the title Pianists: On and Off the Record.