So, what is it about Martha Argerich that leaves her audiences cheering and screaming and clapping at her mere presence onstage? She is perhaps the greatest living pianist of our time, with a following every bit as rabid and loyal as that of any major rock star or band, and her fans can be forgiven for thinking her one of those who breathe the rarefied air of Mount Olympus.
In my own case, it was upon hearing Martha's rendition of J.S. Bach's Toccata in C minor that I became an instant convert. Simply out of curiosity, I purchased the Deutsche Grammophon "Legendary Recordings" reissue (featured that month in the Borders music store), disc unheard, since the listening device was on the blink at the time. My reaction to the Bach CD, in a few words? Completely stunned. Never before had I heard my beloved Bach played with such freshness, spontaneity, clarity and joy!
Naturally, that led to more Argerich CDs sneakily finding their way home with me. Although I've always loved Sergei Rachmaninoff's famously romantic (and fiendishly challenging) Piano Concerto No. 3, I thought I heard a new work altogether with Martha's live version, the one in which Riccardo Chailly and the RSO Berlin struggle to keep up with the blinding speed of her performance. That live recording of both the Rach 3 and the Tchaikovsky 1 kept me spellbound from first bracing chord to last.
Although I was never a huge fan of Frederic Chopin nor Franz Liszt before, Martha quickly put me right with her readings of their works, such as the former's Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60 and the latter's Sonata for Piano in B minor and Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major. Her playing of these generated a deep excitement in me that I'd never experienced with other pianists' versions. (For a simple comparison, and with apologies to fans of Evgeny Kissin, listen to Martha's gently lyrical Barcarolle and contrast that with Kissin's lifeless version on the latter's 1999 Chopin CD on RCA Victor. )
And what about her Ravel? Her shimmering Jeux d'Eau remains unsurpassed to my ears. And her Prokofiev? It was through Martha's 1997 recording of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 (with Charles Dutoit directing the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) that I finally submitted to the odd charms of this 'cacophonous' work. A work that, while chock-full of percussive, occasionally dissonant elements, also retains a beautiful lyricism in the slower sections that Martha brings wondrously to light. In this CD she displayed a more mature, relaxed side to herself, one who nevertheless continued to thrill her listeners in her unique way.
I do think it's the ever-present danger of Martha's snapping all lines to safety, of constantly hovering on the brink of uncontrolled madness, that accounts for much of the excitement in her performances. Her demonic tempos have drawn accusations of "playing too fast" from a few quarters, and I have to concede that she does this on very rare occasion. However, what truly amazes me is her ability to play with affecting nuance even at such great speeds. Most others who play fast lose all color and expressive shading in the process. Not so with Martha.
And so it came to pass that I miraculously found myself within spitting distance of this goddess of the piano, on that special evening of April 8, 2002. In the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, the air was so charged with electricity you could probably power your home (and many more) in the summer with it. I think I left the concert that night in a bit of a daze, still incredulous that Martha had actually been onstage about an hour before, performing live, for the benefit of some two thousand fortunate listeners that happened to include the beau and myself. (For those curious, this FUTURE link--currently under renovation--will provide my account of that special evening at Carnegie Hall, my first time ever at an Argerich concert.)
Finally, I must thank Martha for sharing her incredible gift with us mere mortals. Today, classical music (including opera!) makes up nearly a hundred percent of my listening experience, thanks to Martha Argerich, who opened new vistas in the endlessly fascinating and sometimes mysterious world of classical music for this erstwhile dabbler.
I have written up some recordings and a live concert of hers on a UK opinion site. I will be providing links to these reviews below. (These are currently under revision, thoroughly amateur write-ups, but all are written from the heart.)
And thus she spake, in a gentle, drawn-out manner, somewhat pleading in tone:
"Pas—trop—vite..." — ("Not—so—fast...")
—words she addressed to the man who appeared to be her sole instance of security. He stretched his arms out on either side of her, as if to protect her from getting crushed by that excited but polite little throng, but more to hustle her away from them. Her admirers had been waiting for up to an hour-and-a-half when the Argentinian pianist finally emerged onto the dimly lit sidewalk along 56th Street, "backstage" at Carnegie Hall.
The security fellow seemed to have annoyed the pianist a tad with his haste. Speaking in French, he had told her that it was now time to leave for the restaurant with Mischa et les autres. She had already been graciously signing autographs and posing for pictures for some ten minutes now when she was reminded about dinner, prompting her remark.
For the next ten, fifteen minutes, she happily obliged the rest of the group, signing each and every program, CD booklet, address book, piece of cardboard, what-have-you that was held out in front of her, taking the time to make sure she spelled the name in the dedication correctly for those who requested such, and all the while smiling warmly, even engaging in brief or extended chit-chat with a few. One could hear her slip easily into Spanish or English or French as the situation required.
When all materials had finally received their precious scribblings via marker and ink pen, she stepped off the curb to collect Mischa, who had been standing off to the side talking with the others in their party. A cheerful "Thank you very much!" to the small crowd was heard from her, which drew spontaneous applause and soft cries of "Bravo!" and "Thank you!" from her fans who watched as she and Mischa strolled arm-in-arm to the corner of 56th and Seventh, waiting to cross the avenue along with a few other pals.
The mere mortals, now quietly ecstatic at having met the charismatic star pianist up close, in person, stood where they were and let the musicians go with some reluctance. The ‘show’ was really over now, but there was so much to talk about, too. Martha Argerich’s generosity of spirit, it seems, was not limited to her piano playing. We all felt privileged to have been there that night to bear witness to that fact. It certainly endeared her even more to her already devoted fans.