Martha Argerich is widely considered one of the greatest living pianists. She was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 5 June 1941 and rose to international prominence when she won the seventh International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1965. The self-critical Argerich has never hidden the fact that she suffers from performance nerves and can feel “lonely” on stage – hence her preference for playing concertos and chamber music, rather than solo recitals. Yet from her gleaming, silvery Bach to visionary Chopin and the fantastical worlds of Ravel, her solo recordings pay testimony to a pianism that can rarely, if ever, have been surpassed. To celebrate Martha Argerich’s 80th birthday we take a look at her remarkable career.
Martha Argerich: 80th Birthday Celebration
The sign in the Royal Festival Foyer read “INDISPOSED”. We had tickets for a recital by pianist Martha Argerich, but, as often happened, now she was “indisposed” and would not be playing after all. I was a piano-obsessed teenager at the time and Argerich was basically God. There were tears. I forget who took her place.
One always takes the risk that Martha Argerich won’t turn up because there’s also a chance that she will. Even if there are a few other great pianists in the world, there is nobody quite like her. Argerich, celebrating her 80th birthday on 5 June, is a one-off, a musician with a personal sound that is distinctive, indeed unmistakable if you know it: the components of its magic include a swift, light attack, melting cantabile, and a sense of ebb and flow that can convince you the music is emerging from her subconscious newly minted, however many times you thought you’d heard it before.
She can still surprise us, whether with an incandescent performance of Chopin’s B minor Sonata livestreamed from an empty Hamburg theatre during last summer’s lockdown, or with her latest recording on Deutsche Grammophon, Debussy’s rarely played Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, conducted by her fellow Argentinian Daniel Barenboim, featured on the new album Claude Debussy.
Martha Argerich was a child prodigy
Martha Argerich’s story began in Buenos Aires, where she was born on 5 June 1941 into a family that was surprised to find a piano prodigy in its midst. She started to play when she was two years and eight months old. Aged five, she began studies with the celebrated professor Vincenzo Scaramuzza and went on to make her debut when she was eight, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
At 12, so the story goes, she was introduced to the Argentinian president Juan Perón and confessed to him that she longed to study in Vienna with Friedrich Gulda. The president granted her wish by appointing her parents to diplomatic posts at the Argentinian Embassy there. Gulda, a powerfully individual artist with an unfailing freshness of musical response, remained perhaps her strongest influence.
A conglomeration of competition successes – winning the Busoni and Geneva competitions within three weeks of each other – plus coaching from numerous admired musicians nevertheless left the young musician facing a profound personal crisis. She scarcely played for three years and considered changing direction altogether.
Martha Argerich won the 1965 International Chopin Competition
Having finally returned to music, not least after seeking advice from Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, pianist Martha Argerich triumphed at the 1965 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw which catapulted her to international fame and her first all-Chopin album for Deutsche Grammophon followed in 1967. By then she was already married to her first husband, Robert Chen, and had a small daughter, Lyda.
She soon went on, of course, to tour and record with some of the finest musicians on the circuit. With Claudio Abbado she recorded ten concertos between 1967 and 2013; her second husband, Charles Dutoit, has been a frequent concert partner notwithstanding their divorce; and in chamber music she has worked often with artists including the cellist Mischa Maisky, the violinist Renaud Capuçon and pianists such as Nelson Freire, Alexander Rabinovich and Stephen Kovacevich, who was her life-partner for a while and remains a musical soulmate.
Martha Argerich’s story is told in Bloody Daughter, a raw personal account, by the film-maker Stephanie Argerich, her daughter with Kovacevich. It reveals her conflicting loyalties to art and to family, fraught yet loving relationships, and the difficulties of Argerich’s own background. In an interview soon after the film’s release, Stephanie Argerich told me that it partly represented her efforts to understand her family. “My mother is still a mystery after the film,” she said. “I really think she’s a mystery to herself.”
Martha Argerich can feel “lonely” on stage
The self-critical Argerich has never hidden the fact that she suffers from performance nerves and can feel “lonely” on stage – hence her preference for playing concertos and chamber music, rather than solo recitals. She scaled back her solo performances as early as 1980; today if she performs a solo work, it is often as part of a programme that otherwise consists of chamber music with close colleagues. Yet from her gleaming, silvery Bach to visionary Chopin and the fantastical worlds of Ravel, her solo recordings pay testimony to a pianism that can rarely, if ever, have been surpassed.
It would be easy to think that such mystique is merely mystique – but the minute you see her in concert, you know it’s real. The sounds that she draws from the instrument encompass a staggering range of colour; and something elemental shines through her galvanising rhythmic propulsion in such music as Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff.
If she is predictably unpredictable, that has upsides too: a living-in-the-moment spontaneity that enables her to jump in, feet first, in situations where others might not. At the Verbier Festival, she once encountered Mikhail Pletnev, who had previously sent her his arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for two pianos. Being in the same place at the same time with a festival only too happy to facilitate this remarkable musical encounter, they ended up recording it together the following night.
Few other musicians spark such adoration
Few other musicians spark such adoration among both peers and juniors. Pianist Martha Argerich surrounds herself with virtually an extended family of younger musicians, having helped many rising artists into the limelight via ‘Progetto Martha Argerich’, which she founded at the Lugano Festival in 2001. Among them are Gabriela Montero, Sergio Tiempo and the Capuçon brothers. Her support for young artists has often extended to sitting on competition juries. At the International Chopin Competition in 1980, Ivo Pogorelich was propelled unexpectedly to fame when Argerich walked out in protest over his third-round elimination.
We are lucky still to have her. Back in 1990 she was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, which spread later to her lungs and lymph nodes. An experimental treatment at the John Wayne Institute in the US succeeded in eliminating the disease – by way of thanks, she gave an astounding concert at Carnegie Hall to benefit the JWI in 2000. Today she seems blooming with health.
Now that the prospect of an end to the pandemic is slowly becoming real and concert life is starting to resume, grab every chance you can to hear her.
Martha Argerich: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon spans the great pianist’s recording legacy from 1960 to 2014 with Deutsche Grammophon and Philips. This 48 CD box set features Argerich’s complete solo recordings, including the Chopin radio recordings from the 1960s; complete concerto recordings, including the 4 CDs of “Lugano Concertos” (2012) and the last recording with Claudio Abbado; complete duo recordings, including with Nelson Friere and her 2014 Berlin concert with Daniel Barenboim; and her complete chamber music recordings including with Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky.
“Anyone who has heard Martha Argerich in concert or listened to her albums, often on repeat, will know what an exceptional artist she is,” noted Dr Clemens Trautmann, President Deutsche Grammophon. “Each of her albums for Deutsche Grammophon – a discography built over the course of almost sixty years – uncovers depths of expression and understanding that only truly great performers can reach. She has revealed her remarkable musicianship in recordings for Deutsche Grammophon of everything from Bach, Bartók and Beethoven to Ravel, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, not just as an enchanting soloist but also as a generous chamber music partner. We wish her a very happy 80th birthday and look forward to enjoying many more years of her inspired and inspiring artistry.”
Martha Argerich: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon can be bought here.