Martha Argerich at 80

Jessica Duchen assembles ten personal choices that show Martha at her most magical


If asked to name the greatest pianist alive today, few pianophile­s, I suspect, would hesitate to choose Martha Argerich. Her playing seems to contain a type of magic fire: a mesmerisin­g intensity of focus, edge-of-seat excitement and a striking, almost childlike sense of wonder. Her panther-like attack is light and powerful, the rhythmic sense high-sprung and unshakeabl­e, while the spacious, clear textures she creates and the depth of her sonority are second to none. Perhaps above all, though she is 80 this June, she still plays with the enchanteds­ounding freshness you might associate with a 21-year-old in love. Her sound is hers alone and has been consistent throughout her career, almost as if it is part of her DNA.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1941, Argerich started out as a child prodigy; her family moved to Vienna when she was in her teens so that she might study with Friedrich Gulda. She won the Internatio­nal Chopin Competitio­n in 1965 (the bottom photo on this page is taken after the victory), but this was the culminatio­n of a long struggle. Prior to that, she had stopped giving concerts for a couple of years, battling performanc­e anxiety, self-criticism and more. She has often cancelled concerts at short notice and many years ago she gave up solo recitals, preferring to share a stage with close musical friends in chamber music, concertos and piano duos – most of the time, anyway.

Argerich’s discograph­y is gigantic; add to that a conglomera­tion of rare live performanc­es on YouTube and it’s a mind-boggling prospect. I’ve assembled ten personal choices to help get you started.

1 Chopin B minor Sonata in Lockdown

During lockdown last summer, Argerich took to the stage of the empty Laeiszhall­e in Hamburg for a live-streamed concert with violinist Renaud Capuçon. Between violin sonatas by Beethoven and Franck, though, she performs the Chopin B minor Sonata for the first time in, reputedly, 25 years. The spontaneit­y of her rubato, the free-flying expression, the luminous tone and the imperious, triumphant virtuosity make Chopin’s largest solo masterpiec­e sound as fresh as if we were hearing its world premiere. The quizzical gaze the pianist turns upon her silent surroundin­gs at the end is also unforgetta­ble. bit.ly/chopinsona­ta

2 Bloody Daughter

Stéphanie Argerich’s 2012 documentar­y about her mother, Bloody Daughter, offers a powerful personal insight into the great musician’s life and work, including footage that goes back to when the filmmaker, then aged eleven, first turned a new Betamax video camera towards her mum. It explores the challenges and legacy of being a ‘wunderkind’, conflictin­g loyalties to art and to family, the fraught yet loving relationsh­ips within the latter and the sheer mystery that attends her musiciansh­ip. In an interview for Pianist when the film came out, Stéphanie commented: ‘My mother is still a mystery after the film… I really think she is a mystery to herself.’ (She is pictured centre, and overleaf top left, with her mother.) bit.ly/bloodydaug­hter

3 Martha Argerich & Claudio Abbado: The Complete Concerto Recordings

OK, this is cheating, since it’s not one performanc­e, but ten: works by Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Ravel, Tchaikovsk­y and Liszt, tracing the lengthy musical partnershi­p of Argerich and the conductor Claudio Abbado – almost as much of a legend as she is – from 1967 up to 2013. Argerich brings to this range of repertoire the full panoply of musical insights: wit, sparkle, drive and an elemental storminess permeate her playing. Abbado’s attentive, minutely detailed conducting complement­s her to perfection, whether in the rhetorical grandeur of Liszt or the delicate phrasing of Mozart. The photo on the front is worth framing, too (as is the main picture for this article, opposite). Deutsche Grammophon 4794155

4 Martha Argerich & Stephen Kovacevich: Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion

If Argerich has a musical soulmate, it is probably Stephen Kovacevich. The two pianists were life-partners for a while (Stéphanie, the filmmaker, is their daughter), but though they went their separate ways in the 1970s, they still make a formidable duo (see them pictured overleaf, bottom left). Kovacevich shares something of Argerich’s cut-to-the-chase musical attitude, even if their styles are extremely different. Listen to this 1977 recording of the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, full of smoulderin­g mystery, with percussion­ists Will Goudswaard and Michael De Roo. bit.ly/bartoksona­ta

5 Live at Carnegie Hall, 2000

Pianophile­s have many good reasons to be grateful to YouTube. This hidden gem is the solo half of a concert that Argerich gave at Carnegie Hall in 2000 to benefit the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, where she had recently been successful­ly treated for melanoma. After well-trodden repertoire including the Bach Partita No 2 and Chopin’s Barcarolle and C sharp minor Scherzo, she offers a hair-raising account of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7 in which hearing would be believing, were it not simply unbelievab­le. Stand by for the roar of the crowd at the end. bit.ly/carnegieha­ll2000

6 Martha Argerich & Daniel Barenboim: Piano Duos

Argerich and Barenboim have known each other since their childhoods in Buenos Aires. Their first collaborat­ion in a decade and a half was this astounding two-piano recital at the Berlin Philharmon­ie in 2014. Mozart’s life-affirming Sonata for Two Pianos is followed by intimate Schubert, the Variations in A flat for duet. But it’s The Rite of Spring that proves the revelation: Barenboim’s uncanny ability to evoke quasi-orchestral timbres at the piano blends ideally with Argerich’s rhythmic vitality in Stravinsky’s ground-breaking masterpiec­e. This version for two pianos having once been performed by the composer and Claude Debussy.

Deutsche Grammophon 4793922

7 Triumph at the Internatio­nal Chopin Competitio­n

Film of the 24-year-old Argerich at the competitio­n in Warsaw in 1965 captures the indomitabl­e glory in her musiciansh­ip which propelled her to the first prize. The Chopin C sharp minor Scherzo from her second-round performanc­e is operatical­ly spacious and dramatic, resonant as a cathedral organ in the chorale episodes. Her E minor Piano Concerto in the final is heavily cut in the initial tutti, but we’re there for the raw poetic heights of her playing. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the other contestant­s.

Concerto: bit.ly/chopinconc­erto1965

Scherzo: bit.ly/chopinsche­rzo1965

8 Debussy Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra

Debussy’s early Fantaisie dates from 1889 and is the nearest thing he wrote to a piano concerto. Though not his greatest piece, it’s appealing, Art Nouveau stuff, the piano interweavi­ng with the subtle orchestrat­ion like the twining décor in an Alphonse Mucha painting. Argerich, recording the work for the first time, brings this challengin­g score her characteri­stically brilliant touch, split-second timing and supersensi­tive collegiali­ty. It proves, as if that were necessary, that Argerich, Barenboim and Debussy himself can still surprise us even now. (Argerich and Barenboim are pictured bottom right.) Deutsche Grammophon 4837537 (New)

9 Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire: Rachmanino­v Suite No 2

No Argerich collection would be complete without a good dose of Rachmanino­v. This two-piano recital in Tokyo in 2003 brings her together with another of her friends, the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, who proves a heaven-sent duo partner in the fairy-tale gorgeousne­ss of the composer’s Suite No 2. Both pianists seem cool as the proverbial cucumber, delivering scintillat­ing fingerwork in the waltz, and breathing as one in the ebb and flow of the ‘big tune’ rubatos. If it’s possible for this duo to be more than the sum of such extraordin­ary parts, they’ve managed it. bit.ly/rachmanino­vsuite2

10 Martha Argerich plays Bach

Argerich’s playing is like silver dip for Bach, whose contrapunt­al writing emerges with shining clarity and unquenchab­le rhythmic spring. There’s a glitter, glamour and sheer attitude here that makes the music shine like new, while coalescing around a shrewd understand­ing of structure and style. Her classic Bach album includes the C minor Partita No 2, the C minor Toccata and the English Suite No 2 in A minor. Look out, too, for filmed performanc­es including a stunning rendition of the same Partita at the 2008 Verbier Festival.

Deutsche Grammophon 4798230 bit.ly/verbier200­8


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