This summer, Martha Argerich performed in Hamburg—not before an audience, because very few have. She played in an empty, beautiful hall, which seems strange, when you watch the performance. (It is available on YouTube.) But perhaps Argerich liked it that way. She has often seemed spooked by audiences: her adoring fans, cheering and yelling for her.
Let me laugh at myself a little, by quoting a piece I wrote about Argerich in 1998. Published in The Weekly Standard, where I was then working, the piece is called “Grande dame terrible.” Argerich was fifty-six, you see, approaching antiquity.
That brilliant, appalling, and unignorable pianist, Martha Argerich, will always be thought of as a young tigress: her hair tumbling down her back, her shoulders hunched, her eyes blazing—as though she would rather devour the keyboard than play it. Many critics consider her the greatest living pianist, and all of them recognize her as a “force of nature” (to use their unavoidable phrase). Her fans are shockingly passionate, even by the standards of the concert hall: They hang on her every note, convinced that she is endowed with magic and plays the piano as no one has played it before.
The young tigress, however, is now fifty-six years old, and in recent months, her record label, Deutsche Grammophon, has reissued several of her most popular albums—perhaps in acknowledgement that its bad girl is graying. Can the enfant terrible turn grande dame? Or is there such a thing as the grande dame terrible? These recordings, chiefly of Romantic piano concertos, reveal Argerich both as she was and as she remains, and they will keep her legend alive long after she has retired.
Today, Argerich is seventy-nine. And what she played in Hamburg was Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. See the performance here.
She walks out in one of the colorful garments she now favors: tropical-seeming. (Has she always favored these garments? I can’t remember.) She tosses her hanky on the piano and gets down to business.
Argerich plays the opening of the sonata with authority and sensitivity, both. Her pedaling is very good—exemplary—and this is crucial. She produces various tones, various sounds, on the piano. The instrument has more than one, you know! I don’t think I had ever heard Argerich so sensitive to sound.
Difficult passages pose no problem for her. She is maybe more deliberate than she would have been in previous decades. There is maybe less fire. But there are many ways to play this music.
Argerich sings, very nicely. Chopin wrote songs—proper songs—but I have always thought he reserved his best songs for his solo-piano music. There is no sign of the harsh, abrasive Martha who has sometimes popped up over the decades. Her playing is exceptionally songful and rich.
She ends the first movement with a flourish but no showiness. Then she heads directly into the second movement, the Scherzo.
In this, she is nimble and clear. She shows no strain—no effort—at all. Why? How is this possible? Because of her talent, yes, and because of her discipline, yes: her practicing. But also because she received excellent training in her youth, and this stands you in good stead, on and on.
The Trio of the Scherzo, she plays with wonderful warmth. Then it’s back to the fast stuff, which, for this pianist, is child’s play.
In the slow movement—that sublime Largo, one of the best things in Chopin, and, indeed, one of the best things in the entire piano literature, especially in its middle section—Argerich plays deep into the keys, making a big, rich sound. This sound is almost startling. Throughout the movement, Argerich plays thoughtfully and songfully.
In days gone by, I think, Argerich would have made the opening of the Finale a frightening announcement. Here, she is more subdued. I also think that the early going of this movement would have been faster and more intense. Yet there is intensity—a brooding, somewhat submerged intensity—all the same. And, as in the Scherzo, the pianist is nimble and clean.
By the time she has finished, she is thoroughly Argerichian. She gives off some of the animal magnetism for which she is famous.
Sitting by myself on a front porch, on a warm August night, wearing headphones, I wanted to cheer my head off.
The sonata complete, Argerich gets up, looks out into what would be the audience as if to say, “Pretty damn good, huh?,” and matter-of-factly walks off, just as she has done in sixty or so years of concertizing.
Like you, perhaps, I have heard a great many Argerich performances, both on recordings and in the hall. I think the most exciting was a Prokofiev Concerto No. 1, with Rostropovich on the podium. (That, I heard live.) But this Chopin B-minor? One of the best—one of the most musical—of the great many performances.
Let me say, too, that Martha Argerich looks the same as she always has, more or less. She is, as ever, beautiful. Utterly beautiful.