Great Performers: Martha Argerich
Of all the great pianists who came of age in the 1960s, Martha Argerich is perhaps the most deserving of that oft-abused sobriquet "living legend" – yet her legend is shrouded in paradox. At a time in her career when one understandably might make allowances due to age, Argerich's supple and effortless technical prowess continues to operate at unambiguously full capacity. Yet the utter naturalness of her pianism is offset by a highly-strung and daring temperament.Read more…
Born in Buenos Aires on 5 June 1941, Argerich began piano lessons as a toddler. Between the ages of five and ten she studied with Vincenzo Scaramuzza, whose teaching method emphasized relaxation of the muscles and tendons of the hands and arms, resulting in a warm, full-bodied and well-defined sonority. Indeed, these traits readily characterize every Argerich interpretation, no matter how difficult or complex the work. Listen to the stupefying ease with which she tosses off the repeated octaves in Liszt's Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody; or how she shapes the central section of Chopin's A-flat Polonaise Op. 53 with the utmost control and evenness; or how she playfully and precisely navigates the pyrotechnical whirlpools and firestorms throughout "Scarbo" in Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit'. Not surprisingly, her performances raised the interpretive bar for these works.
Still, a cloud of ambivalence has always hovered around Argerich. Even as a child she hated being on stage. "It was the immense space around me which made me feel so alone," the pianist said in a 1992 interview. At 16 she entered the 1957 Geneva and Busoni Competitions, held just weeks apart, never expecting to capture both first prizes. Although her 1960 recording debut took the piano world by storm, Argerich retreated from music for a few years and gave birth to the first of her three children. With the help of the pianist Stefan Askenase and his wife, Argerich regained her confidence in time to enter and win the 1965 Warsaw Chopin Competition, a victory that established the pianist as a world-class contender on the international stage, solidifying a mercurial yet iconic reputation.
Many of her solo recordings have stood as points of reference for decades, yet Argerich has not given a full solo recital since 1983. Instead she throws her energies into chamber music, concerto collaborations, and duo piano performances. Argerich never taught but has presented and mentored several generations of emerging keyboard talents, primarily through her long-running Lugano Festival series, which ended in 2016. The more that Argerich shuns the limelight, the more attention and fascination she attracts.
Many of Argerich's collaborations are borne out of long, decades-old friendships: with conductors Claudio Abbado and Charles Dutoit (her former husband), cellist Mischa Maisky, violinist Gidon Kremer and pianists such as Nelson Freire, Stephen Kovacevich and Alexandre Rabinovitch. In a 2001 interview, the veteran violinist Ivry Gitlis acknowledged Argerich as a kindred spirit. "No cliché applies to her. On stage, she is pianistic lightning, which is not to everybody's taste. Someone who plays so well awakens irrational fears. She is one of the last pillars of the world."