Argentine Pianist Martha Argerich Was Celebrated at the 2016 Kennedy Center as one of five Honorees to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.
In 1978, Dean Elder had just heard her performance of the Mozart Concerto in C, OP. 25, K503, at Avery Fisher Hall, at about the time EMI captured the broadcast-performance in Amsterdam released in mid-2000.
In describing the concert, he wrote, "...for Martha Argerich is about to play and prove that not all of Paradise has been lost."
"... She is considered by cognoscenti and public to be in the front rank of her generation. Few pianists are viewed with such awed admiration by their colleagues. Few pianists receive such frenzied ovations."
[Elder on the Mozart concerto that night]
"The performance of Mozart's great Concerto in C, K. 503 is exciting and note-perfect. She plays Mozart with a beautiful, silvery, limpid tone...
"The New York Philharmonic conducted by Raphael Kubelik plays superbly. It is lovely Mozart, like a bird song, fresh and unpredictable. Argerich plays freely, effortlessly. Broken octaves ripple, turns are tossed off. The vehemence of her octaves and the brilliance of her passage work are as striking as her immense rhythmic vitality and feeling for tonal values.
"This concerto with its multitudinous melodies has never seemed more spontaneous. Never before have I heard the contrapuntal entrances made so clear. The last movement is taken at a good clip, and Mozart's F major theme..., one of his simplest and most personal, in the development of the sonata rondo is played so refreshingly that one finds himself singing the tune even as shouts of 'Bravo! Bravo!' rise at the end. . . .
"Audiences are spellbound by her fiery and fast-flowing pianism, and Herbert Barrett, her New York manager says, "We could book her 365 days a year if only she would play that many concerts."
[This interview began after Argerich had been practicing for a Washington, D.C. performance]
"...learning some new pieces of Ginastera in less than an hour. She had several things on her mind. Besides personal matters, she was somewhat startled and upset by a Harold Schonberg review in The New York Times calling her Mozart performance ,"rather superficial."
[Elder asked if she chose to play Mozart to show another facet of her artistry.]
Oh, no, no. I was supposed to play the Dvorak Concerto, but there was some strange confusion about that. Then I was to play Schumann, but Firkusny was playing Schumann, and then the only thing I could do was Mozart, I was told. It is interesting for me to play Mozart anyway because some important things have happened to me in relationship with playing Mozart. And it is important for me to know where I stand in that way. That's why this review upsets me very much: it was painful because it was Mozart. This time particularly.
[Elder offered that Gieseking continued to play Mozart his way despite what a few critics wrote and that Elder had found her performance "really very moving"]
But Schonberg said it was very shy or something. Kubelik told me, on the contrary, that he was happy because it was so singing, and that was exactly the opposite of what Schonberg said.
[Elder answers, "Just keeping playing. He'll come around."]
Okay (little laugh of amusement).
[At 16, in 1957, when she won the Busoni and the Geneva competitions within three weeks...]
... the Liszt Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody. That's where I played the Liszt the first time. I hadn't played it before, not even for myself. 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.
... Memory was not the problem. It was the playing. I was afraid that I couldn't, so I didn't want to play, you see.
[Pronunciation of her name]
I don't know. I say, "Ahr-ge-reech." Whatever comes it doesn't matter.
[On how her interest in music started]
I was at the kindergarten in a competitive program when I was two years and eight months. I was much younger than the rest of the children. I had a little friend who was always teasing me; he was five and was always telling me, "You can't do this, you can't do that." And I would always do whatever he said I couldn't. Once he got the idea of telling me I couldn't play the piano. (Laughter) That's how it started. 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."
[Asked if she was forced to practice]
Later, yes I was and I hated it. I didn't want to be a pianist in the first place. I still don't really want to be, but it is the only thing that I can do more or less. (Laughter) I wanted to be a doctor!
. . . I love very much to play the piano, but I don't like to be 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 very young, when you are studying, what this profession is about. No one tells you, and the people outside the profession don't have a clue. They think it is marvelous.
[On whether it's harder for a woman than a man]
I suppose, but it is complicated for me because I had the type of teacher and parents who used to tell me when I was a little girl that my fiance was the piano. I didn't have much freedom as a child.
[On being told her "fiance" was the piano]
And isn't that terrible! (Laughter) My teacher used to tell me this to hypnotize me I suppose - I don't now what. I hate this type of reasoning, this idea of being high priestess or something. I don't like this attitude in life, generally. I would never do that with a child of mind.
[On playing difficult concerts when she was 8]
How do you know about this? I played the Mozart D minor Concerto (isn't that funny, all the Wunderknder play that and it is one of the most difficult in certain respects) and the first Beethoven Concerto and the Bach G major French Suite in between.
... But I heard a tape the other day of a concert of mine, of the Schumann concerto when I was 11 and of that Mozart Concerto when I was nine. It's a very distorted tape, but I was touched because, my God, pianistically, it is absolutely amazing. I mean, I don't understand how I did those things. I just brought this tape back to my mother. It had been in a deposit box in Switzerland for ten years.
[On Gieseking telling her parents to leave her in peace when he noticed she seemed, at age 8, to feel forced to practice]
I played the last movement of Beethoven's Sonata in Eb op. 31 no. 3, and probably he could notice that I was not enjoying the situation very much. I was glad he told them because that was what I wanted. But they didn't take his advice.
It was very difficult I suppose for them to understand. I used to do horrible things to myself in order not to play. I was told if you soaked blotter paper in water and put it in your shoes, you would get fever, so I would hide in the bathroom and put water in my shoes. And I used to hide under the table at soirees instead of meeting people. Daniel Barenboim was at those musical evenings too, but he enjoyed playing for those people very much; I hated it. We used to meet under the table when I was hiding there.
[Elder finds this interesting, "because you have a magnetism when you walk out on stage that goes out to people."]
You think so?
[Yes, and an artist either has it or doesn't.. Elder mentions that Gieseking, loved playing the piano and couldn't stay away from it and could talk about little else.]
Really? Well, some people do. Nelson likes to play the piano quite a lot, more than I do. 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. But I enjoy completely different things like going for walks, talking with people, non-musicians, and being in a completely different atmosphere.
When you have been all your life put into a frame of being a pianist, of being a musician in spite of yourself, it is unfair for the rest of your personality. You have something else you want to express. It looks theoretical in my case, but I try. I don't know if I succeed, but I hope to be able to express myself otherwise too.
[On reports that Arrau, Solomon, Szigeti, Francescatti, and Von Beinem had heard her play.]
Szigeti was very touching. I played for him when I was 12, and he wrote me a letter from the plane. Then I met him again when I was 17 in Genoa and I played some sonatas with him. It was about the first time I had any chamber music experience. I was terrified because I had to sight-read. I didn't know the music. And I was so touched because he went into another room to warm up for 20 or 30 minutes before starting to play with me. I was a 17-year-old with no experience. I mean who was I? I was just nothing, you know. It was incredible!
[Elder mentions Vincenzo Scaramuzza]
He was an extraordinary teacher I suppose, but I didn't do many of the things he told me. I was hearing other people tell me how to practice. He would tell me what to do, and I would do what the other people told me. I studied with him from age five to ten in Argentina.
[Dean Elder notices she played Friedrich Gulda's cadenza to the Mozart Concerto in C, K. 503.]
Gulda was my first teacher outside Argentina. He is fantastic. I love him. I believe he is one of the most talented people I have ever met. For me, playing for him was a fantastic experience.
[On remembering what she especially learned from him]
Oh, all kinds of things. A lot of Debussy and Ravel. Isn't that funny? And Bach quite a lot too. I was with him one year and a half. He used to record the lesson. And after, he wanted me to listen with him, to criticize my own things, you see? This was very interesting because it was very democratic. 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. I learned a lot with him.
Sometimes he would challenge me because I would be lazy. I wouldn't work and learn fast enough. I was going through a sort of mystic crisis about God, whether I believed in God and the immortal soul. It was complicated. I used to arrive late at every lesson and start talking about this with him. I was so worried and he had to answer, and at the same time he knew I was doing this because I hadn't prepared.
[On Gulda fearing she was an underachiver when she was a month with a Schubert Sonata]
"For your next lesson, five days from now, you have to bring me all of Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit' and Schumann's 'Abegg Variations.'"
All right, so I brought them all learned; it was not difficult because I didn't know that it was supposed to be. When one doesn't know that a piece is very difficult, one learns it easily. If you know already from everybody that this piece is difficult, then you don't learn it fast. I didn't know this, so I learned these pieces fast, and he was very happy about it.
[Elder spoke to Nikita Magaloff at the 1977 Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth and asked him what he taught her.]
What did he say?
"Oh, she could already play everything. But I worry when she cancels concerts."
He always says that to me.
[On how she learned the Prokofiev 3rd initially]
Well, I was rooming with a girl who used to practice it while I was asleep in the mornings. We had only this one room. Somehow this music came subconsciously into my mind, even with the wrong notes she was playing. I noticed I knew it when I started to play it.
[And you learned the wrong notes that she played?]
Yes, I did. (Laughter) She was practicing the difficult parts and had these problems. . .
[On Michelangeli as teacher]
Well, I was one year and a half with him, and I had four lessons. It's not much. Once he said to David Ruben from Steinway, "Oh, I've done a lot for that girl." And David said, "But Maestro I know that you gave her only four lessons." And he said, "Yes, but I taught her the music of silence." It's all very mysterious. (Laughter)
[On duo piano partner Nelson Freire]
Nelson has the greatest facility I have ever seen. He can sight-read like I've never seen in my life except for Gulda. Nelson is always looking for new things to play or to read. He is one who enjoys playing the piano as you were saying, like Gieseking, not like me. I have a conflict.
[On pianistic idols, Elder naming Horowitz and Rachmaninoff]
I love them, but not only them. I love Gieseking and Cortot too. I like Schnabel, Glenn Gould - a lot of people.
Of the older people, Cortot is quite important for me. Even Backhaus had some things I used to love. His recording of the Beethoven Third Concerto with Boehm is fantastic ...
[On hearing, with Nelson Freire in January 1978, Horowitz's first appearance with an orchestra in 25 years, and her response to his Rachmaninoff Third Performance]
It was the first time I heard him in the flesh, you know. It was an incredible shock for me because it was more Horowitz than what I thought Horowitz was. Nelson and I were sitting there holding hands, tense. 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!
[On the Liszt Sonata in B minor, Elder tells her ... I think your recording has tremendous architectural sweep from the first note to the last, fantastic emotional and technical drive, with contrasting affecting Iyricism... and asks Argerich her ideas about this work.]
I don't like to listen to it, not played by me, not played by anybody. Isn't that funny? I get very impatient. There is something that bothers me about it, not because Ive heard it too much. On the other hand, I am very interested in what Cortot says about "the dispute of conscience which fills Faust's tormented soul in his search for truth," in reference to the passages of Goethe's Faust that inspired Liszt's Sonata. Some people hate what Cortot wrote in his edition, but I think it opens up a lot of horizons like his playing did too. I don't believe that it works for everything. But for me, yes, for some things it does and well. What Cortot wrote seems very important.
[On possibly making a recording of Scarlatti sonatas.]
Well, no, I can't. I have a horror of all those little trills. You see, little trills are my horrible obsession, and most of Scarlatti is full of them. Long, fast trills go all right, but the little ones - they are for me the horror - you know, sometimes I get stuck. I don't lift my fingers enough. It's like stuttering if I'm not in shape. Let's say I'm sight-reading something, and there are some little trills. Then they go. But the moment I know in advance that I have to do them, then ugh! It's terrible.
[On her feelings in 1964 ("just before the 1965 Chopin Competition" which she won) when she attended the Brussels competition but couldn't enter that particular competition]
The night before the competition I said to myself, "Well, now, Martha, it is over for you. You have been a pianist but now you are not. You cannot play, so what kind of a pianist are you? You know some languages; you must start to earn your livelihood as a secretary."
[On Stefan Askenase's wife's influence.]
I had been away from the piano for about three years ... I was one year here in New York, and all I did was watch television. . . . She had something very special, like a sun. She gave me strength and security. I started to believe again that I could, and little by little I started to play -- very bad, wrong notes all over the place, and I couldn't stand it. I was thinking, "What is the matter with me?" I went on and on like this. Because of her I started to play again, and almost immediately I went to the Chopin Competition. It was because of her. Otherwise, I couldn't have done it.
[On her interpretive goal]
I think interpretation is trying to liberate what one is unconscious about. When one can let go some things one doesnt know are there - the unexpected things and the surprises in the performance - that's when its worthwhile. This is also what I appreciate in other performers. When they are masters of their means of expression, this does not exactly interest me. That interests me in a teacher, but in a performer I am interested in what happens behind or in spite of the things the performer consciously wants to do. Maybe I am a little bit of a voyeur, you know, that way. But this is what I love.
Copyright (c) The Instrumentalist Company 1979.