No admirer of Martha Argerich (and is there anyone who isn't?)*
needs to be told of New Yorkers' sense of excitement when it
was announced that she would break her self-imposed exile from
solo piano appearances and perform alone in a major US recital
hall for the first time in 19 years. The hall was Carnegie, the
date was March 25, and tickets went with the wind. It was to be
half a solo evening, the second part to be shared with the
Juilliard Quartet in a performance of the Schumann Quintet and
with Nelson Freire in Ravel's two-piano version of La Valse.
When Argerich walked on stage that night the reception was,
predictably, tumultuous. And probably everyone in the house was
thinking of the unprecedented interview that had appeared on
the front page of that morning's New York Times in which she
had discussed her personal health and psychological problems
with critic Anthony Tommasini. She revealed that she had been
fighting cancer for ten years (a rumor often heard), that it
had spread to lungs and lymph nodes and that she had undergone
lung surgery three years ago. The disease is in remission. In
one of the most poignant remarks to Tommasini she said she was
postponing her annual medical check-up until after the recital,
because she was too nervous to face it before.
On stage that night she wasted not a moment-giving the audience
barely time to sit down before embarking on Bach's Partita No.
2 in C minor, a performance that ranged in touch and sonority
from organ-like resonance in the opening Grave adagio through a
fleet, clear fugue and a limpid Sarabande to an electric,
spark-spitting Capriccio. The entire performance had the
pianist's trademark tension and dynamism in repertory not
normally associated with her.
Two Chopin works - the F-sharp minor Barcarolle and the crunching
Scherzo No. 3 - tightened the tension several more notches.
Argerich stripped away any vestige of sentimentality in the
Barcarolle, playing it with a kind of directness and strength
that gave it muscular power and a fine clarity in the
glistening fountains that shower down in the right hand. The
Scherzo, at breathtaking speed, was an experience of sheer grit
and guts, hugely gripping and at the same time full of color
and wonderfully diaphanous in its delicate passages. (Standing
ovations are tediously routine these days, but the Chopin
brought on a heartfelt one at mid-concert.)
Prokofieff is the composer with whom Argerich is probably most
closely associated, and his Sonata No. 7 brought into focus the
qualities that ignite her playing so vividly. The first
movement (marked inquieta - an understatement) was an exhibition
of ferocity and whiplash intensity; the melodic warmth of the
slow movement was given great tenderness; the pulverizing
finale was simply volcanic, based on pile-driving left-hand
hammers in the bass that must have shaken the foundations of
the stage. One's stomach was clenched when she finished.
The program's second half inevitably eased up a bit. The
Schumann Piano Quintet bore the Argerich stamp of speed and
concentration, and although she tried not to, she still
dominated her string partners simply by virtue of temperament,
sonority, and freedom of phrasing. With Freire in La valse, an
exhilarating, slightly mad impetuosity took over. From its
subterranean rumblings through its blossoming melodies that
flourish, die, and rise again, the two pianists drove the music
headlong, like a pair possessed.
A near-riot of stamping and shouting eventually drew two
reluctant encores with Freire, the two-piano Valse from
Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 and a movement for piano-four-hands from Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye. The audience wouldn't leave
until an attendant finally took the piano bench away.
* Parenthetical question is part of the article.