The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

In praise of... Martha Argerich

  8th June 2021

8th June 2021


Few classical musicians are held in such universally high regard and affection as Martha Argerich. The outstanding pianist of her generation, and one of the greatest pianists of the post-war period, has just turned 80 – by stealth, as it were, since her playing shows no signs of dimming with age, retaining all of her trademark effervescence and staggering virtuosity. It is some years now since she retired from live solo recitals, having long found the concert platform a lonely place, yet in chamber music and concerto appearances she seems as active and ebullient as ever, her performances characterised not just by technical wizardry but also by humanity, good humour, humility and a deep affection for the music she plays. Tributes have flooded in from the many musicians she has partnered and nurtured across the years, and the June 2021 issue of Gramophone magazine includes a fascinating appreciation by Tim Parry, who has interviewed many of her peers and protégés, as well as her eldest daughter, the violist Lyda Chen.

Martha Argerich was born in Buenos Aires on 5 June 1941, to a family of mixed Spanish-Catalan and Russian-Jewish heritage. She showed musical talent from an early age, starting to play the piano at the age of three, and by 1955 she was studying with Friedrich Gulda in Austria. Later teachers included Stefan Askenase and Maria Curcio. In 1957, within a matter of weeks, she won the Geneva International Competition and the Busoni Competition in Bolzano, rapidly propelling her to prominence. Her 1960 debut recital for Deutsche Grammophon, including Brahms, Chopin, Liszt and staggering accounts of Prokofiev’s Toccata and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, was a revelation to many, combining astonishing control and power with passion, fire and deep musicality. Although she took a three-year break from the piano during a period of artistic crisis, on her return she seemed to shine brighter than ever, confirming her position as the one of the leading musical artists of the day with first prize in the celebrated 7th International Chopin Competition in 1965. Since then, despite having to deal with extreme bouts of stage fright (often leading to cancellations), she has been a permanent fixture on the international scene and in the recording scene, although ‘fixture’ is a misnomer for a musician of such volatility, spark and playfulness.

Her earlier recordings were largely for DG, including some remarkable Chopin, a stunning collaboration with a youthful Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in concertos by Prokofiev and Ravel (1967), and a brilliant 1971 account of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. All her recordings capture something of the sense of spontaneity Argerich seems to bring even to works she has performed many times over (in addition to the composers already mentioned, Bach and Schumann have remained significant constants). This sense of ‘live’ music-making, of the works being created ‘in the moment’, is the result to Argerich’s unique combination of vibrant temperament with a demanding work ethos that sees hours and hours spent practising, intensely familiar with every work she performs, but ever responsive to their possibilities in the heat of the moment and varied contexts.

In recent years her fundamentally collegial approach to music-making found an ideal outlet in the Lugano-based Progetto Martha Argerich, where between 2002 and 2016 she gathered colleagues both experienced and upcoming for chamber and concerto performances which have been documented in a series of immensely valuable recordings by EMI/Warner. Notable partners in these performances have included cellist Mischa Maisky (a long-time musical partner), former husband Stephen Kovacevich, brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, and Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires. From 2018, the festival relocated to Hamburg, where it continues to attract big-name performers like Daniel Barenboim, Cecilia Bartoli, Gidon Kremer and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Another important collaborator over the years has been the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire: their account of Rachmaninov’s Suite no.2 for two pianos (originally on Philips, and sadly currently out of the catalogue) sweeps aside all competition, in a true meeting of minds. More recently, her partnership with the Greek pianist Theodosia Ntokou bore witness to her nurturing of young talent, with an acclaimed account of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in a 19th-century arrangement for piano duet that had critics reaching for superlatives.

With no sign of slowing down, Argerich remains as active as ever, but her performances, unlike those of some of her contemporaries, miraculously retain their unique freshness and creative tension, always finding something new in the music she plays, so that there’s no danger of ever taking her for granted. With so many fine discs to her credit, any shortlist of essential recordings is inevitably subjective, but no self-respecting collection should be without her DG debut disc, now reissued in the ‘Originals’ series coupled with that sensational Liszt B minor Sonata. Likewise, almost self-selecting is the Prokofiev-Ravel recording from Berlin with Abbado, coupled with her magical 1975 account of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Another jaw-dropping performance is a live 1980 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1, vividly accompanied by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the exciting direction of Kirill Kondrashin, in probably her finest traversal of this signature work (and quite possibly the most compelling performance it has ever received on record); the coupling, a similarly thrilling live account of Rachmaninov’s Third with the RSO Berlin under Riccardo Chailly, really clinches the matter.

Warner have now collected together all of Argerich’s Lugano performances in a single 22-disc box which is hard to resist for its sheer range of music and talent, stretching from solo works (just a few) and concertos (several) to a dazzling variety of chamber music collaborations. For a sample of her work with Nelson Freire, try the DVD ‘Martha Argerich & Friends’ from Arthaus, which includes their Rachmaninov and Ravel, as well as some utterly spellbinding Chopin and a Mozart duo sonata with the phenomenally talented Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou who died tragically young at the age of just 40. Lastly, for some remarkable glimpses of life with and for Martha Argerich, the documentary ‘Bloody Daughter’, directed by her youngest daughter Stéphanie Argerich, is unmissable for anyone who wants further understanding of what makes this extraordinary musician and human being tick.

Martha Argerich: A Few Essential Recordings (click on catalogue number for link)
DG Debut Recital: Chopin, Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Prokofiev  4474302
Prokofiev & Ravel Concertos + Gaspard de la nuit  4474382
Rachmaninov & Tchaikovsky Concertos  4466732
Martha Argerich: The Lugano Recordings (22 CDs)  9029594897
Martha Argerich & Friends (DVD)  101671
Bloody Daughter: A Film by Stephanie Argerich (DVD)  4273908

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