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If admirers of Argentine pianist Martha Argerich could ask the award-winning musician for one wish, they would most likely try to persuade her to perform and record solo more often. Fans and classical music critics alike often express their frustration with the virtuoso, but not because they feel she lacks talent; critics repeatedly compare her sound, energy, and passion to that of piano legend Vladimir Horowitz. Rather, Argerich, one of the world's most exciting and expressive musicians to see and hear perform, appears on stage alone only on rare occasions, preferring to share the spotlight with other musicians. Likewise, her recordings as a soloist remain rare in comparison to those of other great classical pianists, although her discography includes works by Bach, Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Falla, Franck, Hayden, Liszt, Lutoslawski, Paganini, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. "Any recording involving Martha Argerich is to be treasured," wrote Allen Linkowski for American Record Guide. "Her discography is much too small for a pianist of her stature, and public appearances become rarer and rarer with the passing of time." She enjoys playing the piano, but feels uncomfortable within the business of music and working as a "pianist." An always gracious performer, she collaborates with orchestras and ensembles "first among equals," as quoted by Bob Cowan in Independent.

The reluctant, yet not entirely reclusive, Argerich has presented the music world with just a portion of the masterpieces she knows and loves. Perhaps her reluctance could stem from wanting to always play to perfection and the pressures of turning professional at an early age, as illustrated by her description of one of the most defining moments from her childhood to Jura Margulis of the Call Project: "When I was very young, about eight or so, I was to perform a Mozart concerto, and before the concert I went to the bathroom, knelt down, and told myself that if I missed a single note, I would explode. I don't know why I believed that, but I didn't miss a single note. It's terrible for a young person, and that explains something about me today, I think."

Born in 1941 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Martha Argerich displayed an interest in music at the tender age of about two years and eight months old. An extremely gifted child, her mother had enrolled her in kindergarten early, and most of the children were much older than Argerich. One of her classmates, an older boy around five years old, insisted on teasing Argerich, telling her that she was not old enough to do certain things. Nevertheless, the determined Argerich would always do exactly what her classmate said she couldn't, including playing the piano. "Once he got the idea of telling me I couldn't play the piano," Argerich related to Dean Elder in a 1979 interview for Clavier. "I still remember it. I immediately got up, went to the piano, and started playing a tune that the teacher was playing all the time. I played the tune by ear and perfectly. The teacher immediately called my mother and they started making a fuss. And it was all because of this boy who said 'You can't play the piano.'"

Recognizing her daughter's inborn musical ability, Argerich's mother decided to enroll her child in private lessons. And Argerich began playing the piano seriously at the young age of five, taking instruction from a renowned Italian teacher named Scaramuzzo. Argerich's mother, while not a musician herself, insisted on the best for her daughter and forced Argerich to practice. She commented to Elder that "I had the type of teacher and parents who used to tell me when I was a little girl that my fiancé was the piano. I didn't have much freedom as a child." Although Scaramuzzo flaunted a despotic and sometimes sadistic approach to teaching, he had taught some of the greatest pianists from Argentina. "When he would say mean, caustic things, he would do it very calmly, very coolly, such things as one was an idiot, and one shouldn't come to the lesson, and I had to concentrate on the mole next to his nose in order not to cry.... He was quite unpredictable, irrational, but a great teacher," Argerich told Margulis. "He said a student is like iron or steel, if you bend iron it breaks, and the sooner the better. If you bend steel, it regains its original shape." Thus Argerich, able to withstand the demands of her instructor, continued to develop her musical talent. In just a few years, at only eight years old, Argerich made her first professional appearance in Buenos Aires, displaying her mastery of both the Mozart D minor and the Beethoven C major Concertos. And by the age of 11, now studying with one of Scaramuzzo's assistants who taught her much about sight reading, the child prodigy had mastered concertos by Schumann as well.

Argerich continued to dazzle audiences throughout Argentina after her debut. Then around the age of 12, she left the guidance of Scaramuzzo's assistant for Europe to study with other notable instructors, including Madame Dinu Lipatti, who also used a harsh teaching style; Nikita Magaloff, who adored Argerich's playing; Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who insisted his students strive for perfection; and Friedrich Gulda, who Argerich considered one of her most important influences. Because Argerich, who spoke Spanish, and Gulda, who spoke German, could not communicate in the same language, they spoke instead through music, as well as in a made-up language they used together, which Gulda called "pan-Romanic." Argerich told Margulis that during one of her first lessons in Vienna, Austria, with Gulda, "he tried to transmit a certain emotion in the music to me, and since he couldn't find words, he grabbed me and pulled me in the bathroom, picked up a wet sponge, and dampened his face. Pointing to his soaked face, he said 'Like that! Like that!'" Gulda also would record his lessons with Argerich and make his young student listen to the recordings with him, so that she could criticize her own work. "This was very interesting because it was very democratic," Argerich said to Elder. "He liked to know what I had to say, what I thought. It was not this thing that usually happens between pupil and teacher. It was fantastic." He believed that a musician needed a bit of talent, instruction, and a sort of arrogance or vanity in order to rouse an audience. Argerich, one of his prized students, seemed to radiate all of these qualities.

In Europe, Argerich's skills steadily improved, and in 1957 at age 16, during the span of three weeks time, she won both the Geneva International Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition in Bolzano, Italy. For these competitions, the teenage pianist performed the Liszt Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. Amazingly, she had never played a piece by Liszt before, as she confided to Elder, "At that time I was very superstitious so I wouldn't play a piece all the way through even for myself. I was afraid that something... so I just waited until I passed to the next round to learn the next pieces." Subsequently, these achievements brought even more prestige to her already legendary career. However, Argerich, feeling overwhelmed with her schedule, decided to retreat from making appearances for awhile, but emerged again in 1965 and became the first musician from the Western Hemisphere to win first prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. Following this, she made her United States debut in 1966, performing for Lincoln Center's Great Performers Series in New York. With her reputation secured in North America, she then went on to perform as guest soloist with numerous orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Toronto Symphony.

As Argerich's career progressed into the 1970s and 1980s, she declined more and more opportunities to give solo recitals. In addition, Argerich realized that the life of a professional musician had its down sides as well as its rewards. She confessed to Elder, "I love very much to play the piano, but I don't like being a pianist. I don't like the profession. And when one plays, of course, it is important to practice. But the profession itself--the traveling and the way of life--all this has nothing to do with playing or with music, absolutely nothing! This is what I do not enjoy about being a concert pianist. You never know when you are are very young, when you are studying, what the profession is about." However, she did not turn into a musical recluse. Rather, Argerich altered her schedule to include numerous chamber performances, ranging from the works of Bach to Mozart, in addition to the master works of Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Bartók, Janacek, and Messiaen. She most often appeared for recorded work and on stage with partners such as violinist Gidion Kremer, cellist Mischa Maisky, pianist Nelson Freire, and pianist/conductor Alexandre Rabinovitch. She enjoyed sharing the limelight with other talented musicians who, in turn, inspired her to delve into each piece.

Argerich also took inspiration from watching other musicians perform. One of her most memorable experiences includes attending a Vladimir Horowitz concert in January of 1978 with her piano partner Freire. The event marked Horowitz's first appearance with an orchestra in 25 years, as well as Argerich's first time to see him in person. Regarding Horowitz, Argerich said to Elder, "The strength of his expression, the sound, and this incredible violence he has inside which is so strange, weird, and frightening. That he can express it. He's like possessed. I've read about this, but this was the first time that I saw on stage someone who has that!" Later, though, critics would compare Argerich's playing to that of the legendary Horowitz. As Cowan noted in a 1999 review of her performance at Tokyo's Suminda Triphony Hall, "Argerich thunders the keys with as much energy and passion as Vladimir Horowitz did 22 years earlier at Carnegie Hall."

The remarkable artist continued to make guest appearances, give chamber performances, and release recordings well into the 1990s, all of which won critical praise. Further, she received two Grammy Award nominations for chamber music in 1997, one for an album of piano pieces by Strauss, and the other for her recording with Kremer featuring Beethoven violin sonatas. In 1998, John Ardoin of the Dallas Morning News named Argerich's two-day concert at Carnegie Hall on October 24 and 25 as one of the ten best classical performances of the year; for the event, the standard-setting pianist played concertos of Chopin and Liszt with the Montreal Symphony.

As an adult Argerich made time for other interests in addition to her music, a freedom she lacked throughout her upbringing. She confided to Elder that "I have long periods without touching the piano, and I don't miss it. And then I can get possessed by the piano for a while as well." During these times away from playing, she enjoys taking walks, spending time and talking with non-musicians, and experiencing different atmospheres unrelated to music.

by Laura Hightower

Martha Argerich's Career

Made professional debut at age eight in Buenos Aires; gave U.S. debut performance for Lincoln Center's Great Performers Series in New York, 1966; performed as guest soloist with numerous North American orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Toronto Symphony; appeared on stage and recorded with other classical musicians, including violinist Gidion Kremer, cellist Mischa Maisky, pianist Nelson Freire, and pianist/conductor Alexandre Rabinovitch..

Martha Argerich's Awards

First prize at the Geneva Invitational Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition in Bolzano, Italy, 1957; became first musician from the Western Hemisphere to win first prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, in 1965.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 13, 2005: Argerich won the Grammy Award for best chamber music performance for Prokofiev: Cinderella--Suite For Two Pianos/Ravel: Ma Mere L'Oye with Mikhail Pletnev. Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

PeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 2 years ago

Someday, I wish to meet her.. Then, maybe I'll be a shy, enthusiastic woman.. I really love to meet her.. Please wait for me.. I love you argerich...

over 2 years ago

I heard the her Warsaw recordings for the first time, five years ago. I was entranced, in love and smitten all at once. One day I may lucky enough to hear her in person at a concert. I ask this without any ill-will, insult or malice intended but, has anyone else noticed a physical similarity between Martha and portraits of George Sand?

over 2 years ago

I do not think that nowadays one can say that an artist is the best worldwide,nevertheless, there is a first and utmost line on top of all others and that is the ultimate place of Martha Argerich no doubt. I am a great admirer!!

over 3 years ago

Once heard ... never forgotten!

over 4 years ago

I seen her today peform for the first time and cannot get her off my mind. Love at first sight!