The bold passion of Martha Argerich

My affinity for South America goes beyond the wanderlust, rich colourful novels and the desire to learn Spanish. This continent has also given birth to some of the greatest concert pianists, one of whom is Martha Argerich.

Who is Martha Argerich? To recount what someone said to me, “She’s everybody’s idol.”

Born in Buenos Aires, Argerich is probably (apart from perhaps Spain’s Alicia de Larrocha, now deceased) the best-known female pianist of the 20th century.  Like a lot of virtuosos, she started music lessons from a very young age. Her raw musical gifts were further fuelled by a musical epiphany: in this article, Argerich describes how at age 6, she listened to Claudio Arrau (another great pianist born in South America) play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 at a concert:

I was dozing off, and suddenly, an electric shock.

As a tween she gave public performances and one of the audience members included the then Argentinian president, Juan Perón. When her family decided to move to Europe for Argerich to further her music studies, Perón facilitated by appointing her parents to diplomatic posts in Vienna. Although less relevant to her musical talents than her natural enigmatic charisma, Argerich’s long locks and dark beauty struck an indelible image on photographs and covers of the numerous recordings she made in her career.

Today, after battles with cancer (she was once a heavy smoker) and approaching 70, Argerich is still performing and partakes in nurturing younger talents: – she helms the Progetto Martha Argerich annually at the Lugano Festival (now into it’s tenth year) and sits as a judge in music competitions; some of her famous students include Gabriela Montero and Sergio Tiempo.  She still keeps her once-raven hair cascading over her shoulders and wears little or no make-up. In part because of her nature as a social creature, she also performs less in a solo capacity and more in collaborative chamber works. Although I have not been fortuitous enough to watch Argerich play live in concert, there are no shortage of excellent recordings and videos to tap on to.

How one feels about a particular performer is difficult to describe. After all, it is a subjective question that very much relies on the individual listener’s primal auditory senses and instinctive connection to the performance. But I think Alexander Ross captures Argerich’s magnetism eloquently in this article :

“Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person: she is a pianist of brainteasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music. This last may be the quality that sets her apart. A lot of pianists play huge double octaves; a lot of pianists photograph well. But few have the unerring naturalness of phrasing that allows them to embody the music rather than interpret it.”

Pianist Fou T’song also said this about her:

“She’s the purest and most incorruptible human being alive… Of course she’s also impossible, crazy and capricious, but these things are part of her purity. There is no more loved person in the whole musical world.”

Like many people who are the best in their field, she is plagued by the strive for perfection often manifested as artistic insecurities. In spite of her talent, wealth and fame, Argerich says:

I always doubt…I’m always groping. If you’re too pleased with what you’ve done, or you get into a routine, that’s the worst. Sometimes I go out on a limb, so it doesn’t happen.

And perhaps it is her bold passion for the non-routine evident in her performances that makes her one of the best pianists of the 20th century.

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