Martha Argerich: Passion play of a virtuoso

A lost childhood, devotion to music, divorce, isolation and cancer. These are some of the reasons why Martha Argerich is the greatest living concert pianist,
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The Independent Culture

When Martha Argerich plays Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3 at the Royal Albert Hall this evening there'll be the usual fight for seats, because nobody plays this work as Argerich does. In the words of the pianist Stephen Kovacevich: "Martha shows that what looks like a cold world is actually dry ice, on which you can get burnt." Having lived with her twice – fathering a daughter in what he calls Round Two – Kovacevich knows whereof he speaks. "If Mercury could play the piano," he says, after a disquisition on her gifts, "Martha is what he would sound like."

The man on the podium for Argerich's Prom will be Charles Dutoit, to whom Argerich was once married, and by whom she has another daughter. Meanwhile, one of her occasional chamber-music partners is a violist called Lyda Chen, who was born to Argerich during her brief marriage to a Chinese composer when she was in her early twenties. A complicated life? Well, she's had other pianist-lovers too, plus enduring relationships with several more pianists which have been purely platonic. But as her Argentinian fellow-student Alberto Portugheis puts it: "Martha is really only married to the piano. That has been the problem for all her lovers."

The story of that marriage is as tortuous as the story of her life: indeed, it is the story of her life. It began 58 years ago when she was a two-year old at kindergarten, where, in response to an infant challenge ("I bet you can't play the piano!") she impeccably reproduced a tune her teacher had played. Her oft-repeated mantra "I love to play the piano, but I don't like being a pianist" has its roots in what happened next, as her ambitious mother began to drive her hard. At five, Martha was placed under the tutelage of Vicente Scaramuzza, a sadistic fanatic who over the next five years gave her a superb technical grounding, and laid the foundations for her unique cantabile style. Daniel Barenboim was another of Scaramuzza's pupils, and when they were trotted out to perform at soirées, he was the one who loved it, while Martha tried to hide under the table.

As a precocious bloom – tutored at home, not sent to school – Martha caught the attention of Peron, and at 12 was invited with her mother to an audience at the presidential palace. Asked what they wanted to do next, her mother ingratiatingly replied that her daughter wanted to give a big concert in Buenos Aires, but Martha herself told him her dream was to study in Vienna under Friedrich Gulda. With a wave of the magic wand, Martha's economist father was appointed attaché in Vienna, and her mother Juanita was given a job there too.

Argerich acknowledges Gulda – a subversive mould-breaker who also composed and played jazz – as her biggest pianistic influence: she was fascinated by his sound, and by the paradox of his controlled expressiveness. He recorded their lessons, and made her criticise her performances; he also made her jump through hoops – learning Ravel's vertiginous Gaspard and Schumann's equally vertiginous Abegg Variations from scratch in the same five days. "I did not find it difficult, because I did not know it was supposed to be," was her famous comment afterwards. Before studying with Gulda, she had studied briefly with Madeleine Lipatti, and also with Nikita Magaloff, who once ticked off Lipatti – who had been trying to tame Argerich's fire – with memorable aptness: "Madeleine, you can't make a race-horse trot.

That was after she'd won the Busoni Competition at the age of 16; in the same year she also won the Geneva Competition. By the time she was 20 she was both world-conquering, and lost. Deciding to evade her mother's oppressive control, she went to live in New York where – in the words of the pianist Fou Ts'ong – "she rebelled against the piano, and lived a chaotic life".

Things turned instead in an unexpected direction: through a brief entanglement with the young Chinese composer Robert Chen she became pregnant, and went through the rituals of a traditional Chinese wedding. Some friends say she did this out of curiosity, others that her mother forced her into it, while yet others regard the whole thing as simply a mistake; at all events, she never set up house with her husband, and fled back to Geneva to give birth. What followed was luridly dramatic, with the father fighting and winning a court case for custody of the child, whom Martha's mother had tried to abduct. Martha's own life style, meanwhile, had been judged too chaotic to provide the stability her daughter needed. As a result, she was effectively barred from contact with her daughter, until music brought them together again 17 years later.

This was her lowest point: she'd not played the piano seriously for three years, and thought of giving it up. What saved her was the encouragement of Stefan Askenase and his wife, who proved the necessary catalyst. "Because of her," Argerich said in an interview with an Argentinian magazine, "I started to play again. She had something very special, like a sun." She went off and won the Warsaw Chopin Competition.

Gravitating to London, she joined the dazzling array of musical talent living in an artist's colony called the London Music Club. Maria Curcio, who coached Martha at that time, and to whom Martha remains devoted, remembers her as the heart and soul of the party. "She ruled the London Music Club, not because she wanted to, but because nobody could resist her magnetism." One of the traits Martha inherited from her mother was an obsession with astrology – even today she checks out new acquaintances' star signs – but at the London Music Club, astrological discussions were the norm, and lasted far into the night.

Night is the time when Argerich is most vibrantly alive: that's why she and Kovacevich – who works in the morning - could pursue parallel trades (tensely) under the same roof. Their main liaison lasted 18 months; the marriage to Dutoit, which preceded it, had lasted four years, during which Argerich laid the foundations of her concerto repertoire. But her nocturnal nature has been the rock on which other relationships have foundered – that, plus her combustible temperament. As her EMI manager Jurg Grand puts it, with purring affection: "You can't live with Martha without fighting – it's just not possible." Another friend takes a grimmer view: that Martha has repeatedly been made to suffer by lovers who couldn't bear to be reminded, every time she played, of their own inferiority. "My sentimental life is a disaster, a desert," she confided to her Argentinian interviewer.

And despite her superhuman prowess, she's always been prey to artistic insecurities. Fou Ts'ong – not a lover – sparked one of these when she asked him what he thought of her rehearsal of Chopin's First Concerto: his verdict – that it was too declamatory – put her into such agonies of indecision that she could scarcely do the performance. She's still frightened of Mozart, despite recorded evidence to the contrary. It was only when she came to play with the violinist Gidon Kremer and the cellist Mischa Maisky, she says, that she finally realised she could do justice to Beethoven. Rather touchingly, she's also frightened of Scarlatti's trills, though mere accuracy was never her goal.

Moreover, she sees insecurity as a plus. According to Jurg Grand: "She says, if you're sure of yourself, it means you're not an artist." David Groves, her recording producer at EMI, recalls the way she approached their first collaboration. "She hovered round the piano, touching it like a cat – as though it was something to be sensed and tamed – and she was genuinely anxious about a Schumann miniature she had not played before. Not whether she could play it, but whether she could speak through it. The result was one of the best recordings I've ever had the privilege to make."

Cats are part of the company she keeps at her convivial home in Brussels, where her three daughters are now in frequent attendance, and visitors constantly come and go. Many of those visitors are young pianists, in whom she takes a maternally supportive interest: for further evidence of her generosity towards the young, look at her walk-out from the Warsaw Competition when Ivo Pogorelich was unfairly eliminated; look at her "Martha Argerich and Friends" concerts; and the piano competition that bears her name in Argentina. It took much persuasion to get her to lend her name to that, because no musician was ever less self-promoting. Or less worldly: as one former manager has observed, with all her caprices and cancellations, she's done everything she could to destroy her career, and totally failed in the attempt. Maisky puts it another way: "When she cancels, it's for her own perversely professional reasons. She will never allow herself to go on stage if she's not in the right condition, either mentally or emotionally. She says: 'I am not a soldier. I do not go to war just because the general says so.'"

But the reason for some cancellations has been the curse which has overshadowed her entire adult life. In her early twenties she was obsessed with the fear of cancer: three decades later she contracted it. After three bouts of surgery she's now kept stable by regular injections, and after stopping smoking (a wrench), and after cutting down on her ferocious schedule, she's once more in top form.

Will she ever perform solo again? Kovacevich thinks she's bored with that game. "She likes people to be with her on stage – she even likes talking while she's playing." In an interview with Alberto Portugheis, she has given a more poignant explanation: "When on stage I always felt alone, and I found this hard to bear. This may also come from the fact that as a child I never went to school. No one understood how much I suffered, having to practise for hours, not being able to share with other children of my own age. On stage I had that strange feeling of being separated, stranded. For me the audience is not company, no matter how friendly and enthusiastic. I have a great need for company when I am on the platform, and making music with other people gives me that feeling." Hence her delight in collaborating with friends each summer at the Verbier Festival: this year she was ringing the changes there with an amazing galaxy of Russians.

What is she like to perform with? "Unpredictable, sometimes even annoying," says Maisky. "But still the most beautiful experience in the world. I count myself the luckiest of cellists, to be able to play with her." "Like being in the presence of a fireball," says the conductor Antonio Pappano. "Her pianism is not pianism in the normal sense of the word – it's volatile, quixotic, rhapsodic – it's Martha herself." Then they talk about her fidelity to the score, the way her rhythms transcend bar-lines, and her unique blend of turbo-charged modernity and old-fashioned eloquence.

Unique? "She's the purest and most incorruptible human being alive," says Fou Ts'ong. "Of course she's also impossible, crazy and capricious, but these things are part of her purity. There is no more loved person in the whole musical world."

Martha Argerich plays Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 3 at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212) tonight. It will be broadcast live on BBC2 and Radio 3. A longer version of this article appears in the current edition of 'BBC Music Magazine'

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