Meditating on Martha


There can be few pianists today, or even in living memory, with a career as unusual as that of Martha Argerich. After a fairly regular superstar launch – major competitions, major record deals, concert tours and rave reviews, she decided to emulate Glenn Gould and, without going quite as far as he did, gave up solo performances. Since then, 1979, she has continued her busy concert schedule, focussing on a small number of concerti and a fairly limited area of chamber music. On few occasions, such as her own annual festivals in Japan and Switzerland, she delves more deeply into the chamber repertoire, but always seems very particular about what she plays. Her chamber music partners have been plentiful – from young musicians she has decided to support to a wide range of established stars, she seems comfortable performing with a very eclectic range of colleagues. In fact, her voracity of experimenting with chamber music partners reminds one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had an equal desire to taste the possibilities of artistic cooperation. Ironically, vocal music is the one area Argerich has never strayed into. What a combination that might have been!

Music for two pianos has long been a strong interest for Argerich, and she has worked with several long standing partners, including Nelson Freire, Nicolas Economou and Alexander Rabinovitch. Additionally, she has performed and recorded with pianists such as Yevgeny Kissin, Emanuel Ax and Lang Lang, but these performers are only occasional partners and seem to be partners out of curiosity rather than conviction. The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire was her first long term partner in the 1970s, and together they covered the war horses of the repertoire, culminating in a magnificent record for DG with Rachmaninov’s Second Suite, La Valse and the Paganini Variations of Lutoslawski. Later, she began performing with the Cypriot pianist Nicolas Economou, adding some works to her repertoire and recording the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances and Economou’s own transcription of the Nutcracker Suite. Sadly, this partnership ended with Economou’s tragic early death. A long period of performing and recording with Alexander Rabinovitch followed, extending Argerich’s repertoire significantly. In recent years, she seems to be playing mostly with friends, younger pianists and older, less established names; for the big occasions, however, she has resumed her collaboration with Nelson Freire, and it was with him that she appeared in early August at the Salzburg Festival.

The repertoire was partly familiar: Brahms’ Haydn Variations and Ravel’s La Valse; Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Shostakovich’s Concertino and Schubert’s Rondo in A, D 951 were less familiar, although hardly new for her. Both pianists’ playing was wonderful, and the audience was left ecstatic, but the performance prompted some thoughts regarding Argerich. She is now (arguably, of course) the most electric, forceful and fascinating musical personality in the world of piano playing, and almost alone in her ability to stand alongside the great pianists of the past in terms of artistic and pianistic charisma. At an age where many pianists begin to show their weaknesses, her fingers, her resources and her musical imagination seem as bright and lively as they ever have, and her commercial pulling power also seems undimmed, in spite of her frequent cancellations and tiny repertoire. Who else could get away with playing the same three or four concerti in permanent annual succession and still pack the halls, leaving the audience desperate for more? But that still leaves the question as to why she restricts her repertoire so much, and why her collaborations seem rarely to include artists of a similar calibre to herself, even if they would be difficult to find. Is she in this respect similar to a great singer or violinist finding an accompanist of lesser stature who can fit in with her schedule and does not cramp her style? Should we regret the lack of Argerich-Barenboim concerts, for instance?

In the Salzburg concert the gulf between Argerich and Freire was clear: whilst obviously an excellent pianist and artist, Freire is certainly not of the calibre of Argerich, and this showed in the performance. With so much in the way of exchanges between players that is typical for two piano music, his responses could not match hers for imagination and colour – whether the glissandi in La Valse or the more thematic dialogues of the Symphonic Dances, it was not an equal conversation. However, what also showed was the strong bond between the two, their warmth for each other, and their intimate knowledge of each other’s playing. Freire was always willing, and mostly able, to accommodate Argerich’s feu follet style, and they blended well together throughout. It prompted a comparison with Argerich’s other partners, and the question as to how they each affected her style. Economou was a more forceful personality than Freire – strong, clear and apollonic, he tended to give her a clearer basis around which to hover. Rabinovitch was himself more eccentric than Argerich – together they not only explored large new areas of repertoire, such as Messiaen and Strauss, but their performances sounded almost like improvisations. Hearing their recording of Rachmaninov’s First Suite for two pianos is to experience a world of flexibility and ineffability, each tempting the other to more freedom, more tonal variety and less tangibility. Freire seems less extreme than either Rabinovitch or Economou, probably closest in style to Argerich herself, but at the same time offering less of a contrast or complement to her.

One particular aspect of Argerich’s playing is her tendency to approximate musical parameters, i.e. to vary pulse, speed or dynamics in a way that makes the music constantly unpredictable. It is not just that she can make the music exciting; by keeping the music unpredictable she keeps the listeners alert, preventing the emergence of clichés and keeping the experience of the music immediate. This is why one so often has the feeling of hearing the music with fresh ears when she performs: her style may become familiar but the details of her playing always change. Argerich is a mistress of never letting the listener settle, always rousing and surprising with her constant flexibility. This is not rubato in its more familiar form, since rubato consists in the expanding of the music to fit its natural flow, in accordance with the listener’s expectations, whereas Argerich’s rubato often works against those expectations.

Listening to Argerich’s playing, it strikes one almost as a commentary on the music, a duet with an second, inaudible performance of the music, where she hovers around the pulse of the music, around its dynamics, its phrasing, on rare occasions converging with it, only to touch off again. The knowledge of a solid rendition of the music is essential to appreciate this imaginary duet, this mental counterpoint of performance. Economou was a good partner for her in the sense that he provided that solidity, that marble core to the music, which enabled Argerich to let loose. Perhaps this is also why she is happy with such a small repertoire – since each performance is so different from the previous, she is happy exploring the inner world of each piece, illuminating it from a different angle, shifting the emphases, generally playing a different piece each time that is based on the same source.

Another facet of her playing, more prevalent since working with Rabinovitch, is the way she largely avoids points of gravity: whilst she is always happy to give strong impulses, crashing bass notes etc, much of her playing is light in the extreme, avoiding downbeats, making one phrase lead into the next, flying forwards in long swoops. Her particular brand of rubato helps here as well, as it can assist in weakening emphasis and generating momentum. What is striking is how Argerich is able to judge this process so perfectly that the lines are never so long as to become tedious, or that the lightness of touch never becomes flimsy. This is also a feature prominent amongst some of the great pianists of the past: one may think of Rachmaninov’s recording of the Prelude from Bach’s E Major Partita for Violin, Bartok’s renditions of Scarlatti, or many of Josef Hoffman’s recordings – each displays a similar weightlessness, making the listener wonder how the music can survive with so few supports, like those huge bridges with such large structures and so little actual support from the ground. Her fast tempi certainly help to create the momentum to avoid gravity, but one need only experience Argerich and Freire in the Rondo D 951 by Schubert to realise how little speed has to do with it. The freedom and elegance with which this wisp of a gem materialised and disappeared was a joy to perceive, with almost no downbeat in the whole piece until the last bar.

Perhaps the answer to the question regarding Argerich’s collaborative partners lies here: this most single minded of musicians clearly has an agenda as far as her playing goes – she knows what she wants to play and what she wants to explore when she plays it, even when this is quite different from the norm, and the audience seems to be happy with her choice! Nelson Freire is seemingly happy to assist her in this, and we should be grateful to him for doing so. The resulting concerts are surely amongst the highlights of any music lover’s calendar. Having the freedom to benefit from the input of many other musicians while being free to set her own priorities may be the reason Argerich refrains from searching amongst the other piano titans for a partner – we should just be happy that she exists and plays the piano for us.

© Béla Hartmann - first published in December 2009 in Piano Magazine



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