Translated from Spanish by Andrys, vastly improved by Maria Elena Hartung,|
a translator by profession in Argentina, who adds interesting explanations as well.
Permission to post the English translation has been requested from Revista.
The great pianist of the century. She who sets her own conditions in the marketplace. She who is unpredictable, temperamental and tortured. The fragile woman who fears solitude and death. The genial interpreter. She who hates interviews. Martha Argerich, who will play this month in Buenos Aires after thirteen years of absence, spoke with Clásica in her home in Brussels.
The voice of Annie, her second daughter, announces on the answering machine that you have reached "Marthita's." The telephone is rarely answered. Calls that assure they are about personal matters that cannot be postponed, agents who beg the acceptance of concert dates, journalists who request interviews. A sort of invisible wall surrounds "Marthita". Nevertheless, for those who know her home in South Brussels, the doors are open. Pianists, young Russians, Japanese, Cuban or Argentine, friends or friends of friends, live there -or almost-. At suppertime a multitude gathers around the table full of salads, sushi or an authentic Argentine (version of) shepherd's pie. And all can end with a Tower-of-Babel session of "charade." Each team thinks of a word - mixing French, Spanish, Russian and English - and the other should represent it by miming. Martha Argerich, always reclined more than seated, always barefoot, suggests the first word: "antimusical."
In Brussels, natives and strangers adore the pissing mannikin, literally a bronze figure that urinates into a fountain and which they dress with different jackets and hats each week. Near that area, in the Grand Place, a perfect postcard of the European culture at the end of the century can be seen: two Iranian musicians, dressed in Mexican style, play tangos with violin and accordian.
The approximate coincidence between one of the apocalyptic predictions of Nostradamus and the date of the total eclipse of the sun - 11th of August, has made Belgian and French, as the gauls of Asterix's village, fear more than ever that the heavens - or a space station - will fall upon their heads. Martha Argerich knows that, just in case, that day she will not be leaving her house. She cannot define with precision, on the other hand, why she lives in that city. "I didn't choose it. It was by chance. I was living in Geneva, my mother had just died in Paris, I was destroyed and I came to spend a few days with some friends. They tried to convince me to buy the house next door and I had promised to think about it. When they took me to the airport, we had an accident, I missed the flight and I bought the neighboring house."
That house is the center of operations to which she returns after any performance in whatever part of the world. The death of her mother, as she had been the driving force of her life, was a decisive event. Perhaps because that woman was the one who had "obtained the best teachers" and the one who always had helped her to overcome her doubts when facing them in her musical career. Perhaps, simply, because she was the one with whom she most talked.
With her father, who has just turned 90, the relation is today "remote, but very warm when I see him; I love it." * They were, she says, "very close when I was very small; during that period, it was a good relationship." But the start of all, or, at least, that of one of the greatest pianists of history becoming so, was via a challenge. Marthita was two years old ("I was very precocious, I was talking my head off"), and an older friend, who was already more than five, would pester her, telling her what she could not do and what he could. One day, the friend insisted that Martha could not play the piano, because she was too young a child. And she went to the piano of that kindergarten class and, with one finger, she played the songs that the teacher sang. The teacher called her parents. The parents bought her an instrument and they took her for lessons. "That way of responding to challenges" - she says now, lounging in a chair - "has its good side and its bad side. Because I continue to do this. In a way, with a great deal more make-up, I continue being this way and, many times, I make myself endure and suffer terrible things with the only argument being that I can do it. And for what reason? Why should we have to tolerate something that is not good for us?"
*Note by Andrys:
Martha Argerich's father passed away in May of 2000.
The only pianist capable of setting her own conditions in the marketplace, the one who recorded always what she wanted, when she wanted and on the label she wanted, the one who doesn't perform when she doesn't feel like it, the pianist famous for her temperament and for the strength of her interpretations, transmits fragility. Her small voice, which often becomes a whisper, the timid pouts, contrast with her explosive laughter and with the attitude of her body when seated in front of the keyboard. The tone with which she speaks, with an undefinable accent in which the consonants are lost, resembles that of the intimate confession, although she speaks of things as public as the cancellation of a concert ("It's that I cannot live this way, they don't let me rest") or of her fascination with the phrasing of Friedrich Gulda when she listened to him for the first time ("What enchanted me was his extraordinarily rigorous rhythm"). Also, clearly, when she returns to speaking about her mother: "She lifted from me the crisis when I had stopped playing, during the period in which I went to the United States and was expecting my first daughter. Mamá wanted me to participate in the Brussels Competition and I realized that I could not do it. I didn't participate."
"I remember that on that night I thought 'Okay, I was a pianist but I am no longer one. Now I have a daughter, I know some languages and I can find work as a secretary.' And it occurred to my mother to call Mr. Stephan Askenaze for whom I had played in Argentina when I was a small child. And it was they, he and his wife Annie (my daughter was named after her) who made me return to playing. Because I had left it, almost completely. I had been a year and a half with Benedetti Michelangeli and nothing had happened. They gave me a little security. It was in the month of May and in September, I believe, I already played a concert. They kept me afloat but it was, as always, my mother's idea."
In Argentina, her teachers had been Ernestina Kusrow, famous for teaching children to play by ear, and the equally famous but fearsome Vicente Scaramuzza, capable of changing all the fingerings of a work minutes before a concert. But she always recognized as her principal mentor, Gulda, with whom she studied in the Conservatory of Vienna. And she acknowledged him at a time when to do this was little less than subversive.
That pianist who did not announce the programs of his concerts, who played what he decided at the moment and who alternated sonatas by Beethoven with his own works, inspired by jazz, was not what the establishment of classical music could have been able to consider a good model for a girl prodigy. "He was a revolutionary, but that went very well with me. I was, furthermore, drawn to pianists who, like him, did classical repertoire. It is strange because, apparently, later I returned to the other side, more toward the romantics." The technique of teaching and the instrumental one, on the other hand, according to Martha Argerich, have nothing to do with the other. "Scaramuzza never played the piano. He never played one note. Never," she says with something approaching indignation. "In the first place, Gulda was an extraordinary musician. He achieved maximum expression without making any change of tempo, not even between the first and second theme. He was so immaculate and, at the same time, he had such a special sound. It had nothing to do with what Scaramuzza told me, who always spoke of 'song,' of 'expressiveness.' This question of rhythm fascinated me totally with Gulda. Furthermore, Scaramuzza put emphasis on the round sound and Gulda at times achieved a sound that could be unpleasant for people. And that enchanted me." When Martha Argerich says certain things ("I was fascinated," I was delighted by it"), the words are lengthened in a whistle; she pronounces them almost in secret, and smiles. Meanwhile, with the same passion, she eats milk jam ("dulce de leche")*, mango and Belgian chocolate.
*Note by Maria Elena Hartung:
The General and the girl
A jam made from milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla flavor, only made locally, which resembles toffee but is unique. It takes literally hours to make and one is likely to leave it too long on the fire and it will spoil. It's eaten with bread/toast, thick layer or butter and Dulce de leche to top it and is delicious!!!
Argerich remembers: "I was little more than 12 years old, had played at the Colón, and Perón had given me an appointment in the presidential residence. Mamá asked if she could accompany me and they told her yes, of course. I was not much of a peronist; I admit that I was always being hit from all sides by little papers that said Balbín-Frondizi. He received us and asked me, 'And where do you want to go, ñatita?' * And I wanted to go to Vienna, to study with Gulda. It pleased him that I did not want to go to the United States. The funniest thing was that my mother, ingratiating herself to him, told me that I would be delighted to play a concert in the UES [Secondary School Students' Union]. And it seems that I must have made a face revealing that the idea did not please me because Perón began to let mamá ramble on, telling her 'of course, señora, we are going to organize it,' while he winked at me and, under the table, gestured with a finger, NO. He was making fun of mamá and he was calming me. He realized that I didn't want that. Fantastic, is it not? And he gave a job to my papá. He named him Economic Attaché in Vienna. And he told mamá that she seemed to him also very intelligent, enterprising and capable and he obtained another position in the Embassy for her."
*Note by Maria Elena Hartung:
In reality, Politics had already been connected with the destiny of the Argerich family. "Papá and mamá met in the Economic Faculty of Sciences, Martha recalls.
She was 11 years younger than he and was one of the three or four women who studied there. Papá was president of his party, the Radical one, and mamá was the president of hers, the Socialist. And thus they met and began to fight with each other and they fell in love. I suppose that, basically, although mamá was not so critical of peronism as papá, because she agreed with some of the things that Perón had done, such as the retirement program, the female vote or that farmers were treated with greater dignity, neither of the two felt it very amusing that I could go to study and they would be able to get work overseas thanks to Perón."
Ñatita is a very warm and loving expression meaning "little nose," and is used for children or young women. It is VERY local and seen in Tango lyrics and folklore.
The first years in Europe were those of the prizes in Bolzano [Busoni] (that had been declared deserted for seven consecutive years) and followed by Geneva. In 1965 it was Warsaw, where she won, over the Polish candidate. And her return to that city, a few months later, when the public said good-bye, singing to her during thirty minutes the "Slata Lat" ("May you live a hundred years") which until that moment only Artur Rubinstein had merited. She was 24 years old.
Martha Argerich who, according to a dossier about the greatest pianists of the century published by the French magazine Diapason, is the only possible present equivalent to Clara Schumann, is used to recording the same works several times. She does not, however, think about this too much. : "In practice, each time that I play something I do it in a different way from before. When I return to a work, I always see different things. It is not only when I record but also during the concerts. Always I look for other things and I continue looking until the last moment. I rarely listen to my old recordings. When I have to go back to study a work that I have already recorded on disc, then yes. The only discs of my own that I listen to are the chamber works, because I love them so much. Above all, I love the disc with the Bartok Sonata that I did with Gidon Kremer, and I put it on all the time. But, I really do not recognize myself in recordings. Once a friend put on for me the Chopin Preludes, telling me that it was Pollini. I listened to it and I said: 'How well that is played, I like that very much.' And it was me. I hadn't realized this. One of the interesting points, from the pedagogical view, that Gulda made was to try to develop listening to yourself. We had to listen together to what I had done and I had to criticize myself. And then, of course, make corrections. When one plays and, later, when one listens, the perception is totally different."
One of the reasons that Argerich comes to Buenos Aires is "to support this Competition and to help young pianists. Things are not what they were when I began. To make a career as an interpreter, at this time, is extremely difficult. And there are other changes that perhaps are not as important but which one must keep in mind. There is a very current problem, that I have noticed in the competitions, and that is the topic of memory. When I was a girl, we thought that was something that passed with age, as this happened to Alfred Cortot, for example. But now we are seeing many young people with problems in that area. Sometimes it could be, as Alexis Weissenberg said to me once, from television. It could be that young people are not used to focusing their visual attention during a long time on only one thing. Overall, it is not too important. Sviatoslav Richter, upon reaching a certain age, played using sheet music. And Gidon, who is young, always plays with the music in front of him. This question of playing by memory began with Liszt. But he played ten or twelve important works, and the present day interpreter, on the other hand, has a repertoire a great deal more extensive; therefore, one cannot waste so much time with memorization."
"I have never had the feeling that the public was fascinated with me. I still don't feel that. Many things happen when one plays. The first, obviously, is the interest that is produced in me in what I am playing. The Music. Then, when one plays with other people, there is a very precise registering of what they play but, also, of their movements, of their gestures. Even though I am not looking at them, I know when they close their eyes, when they smile. It has been a long time now since I decided not to play solo any longer. It's a little mysterious. I don't know very well why. It so happens that I don't enjoy very much being alone. And I don't like the loneliness on stage." Neither does Martha Argerich enjoy being alone in her home. And much less in hotels and in foreign cities.
Theoretical essays interest her, "to know how something was played in each period, to be acquainted with the descriptions that others, like Liszt, gave of the way Chopin played. That has fascinated me: to hear how Chopin played. Trying to know what the interpretations were like in each period is a question of respect for the composer who created that music that I love. It's not that I am going to try to play it that way, but that it can be a source of inspiration."
Her relationship with the piano has a degree of tension too. "It can be the most antimusical instrument of them all. With others, at least one has to breathe, or one has to make movements with the bow. On the other hand, the piano can be a totally mechanical instrument. And a pianist, then, can be very antimusical. To not make any nuances that give relief, any phrasing, and to be playing the piano."
In her repertoire it is difficult to find one common, complete model.
A Bach Partita (never all of them) fits just as well as a Prokofiev sonata. She seems to reject the concept of one-composer collections. All and all, another hard blow to the recording market. The companies should forget, when dealing with her, the present day tendency for complete editions. "I hate entire cycles," she explains. "Besides, I am very lazy, or at least not very methodical, and it would be very difficult for me. On the other hand, if I have to go to a concert, I don't like to hear these either. They bore me horribly. For learning, on the other hand, it is fantastic. The only complete cycle that I made, in two days, was Beethoven's Sonatas for cello and piano, with Mischa Maisky. And I loved that. It was a total immersion in that world. What happens, it seems to me, is that with Beethoven I understand him more than I do others." She is not sure, on the other hand, how she chooses her repertoire: "In general, it's something that responds to various issues: what one is asked to play, what one feels like playing. It is easier to know what it is that one wants to avoid."
At the beginning, Martha Argerich resists saying what it is that she avoids. She laughs, changing the focus. "I avoid them from fear, not from hate," she admits. "And one fear I have is Mozart. The expression, in his music, is very ambiguous. In spite of the fact that I love ambiguity, with him, I don't know. With Mozart, the sound of the modern piano gives me some trepidation. I would like to play him with a fortepiano from that period, in order to understand a little what type of sound it is that is required in that music. It is interesting to see what it is that those instruments need to make their sound: another type of touch, another type of rubato, another sense of agogics."*
*Note by Andrys:
Agogics: Local (as opposed to general) or arbitrary variation in microtiming.
Certain notes given a bit more (or less) length depending on importance of the beat and harmonic events. Small timing inflections within the measure or within a tempo.
Her two cats, Ginger - a maroon reddish male - and Tango - a black female - stroll around her legs. And Martha Argerich says that she "never" supposed that she was going to be a pianist. "Even now I don't know that. Maybe it is a little childlike to speak in this way, but I am a bit childlike. A little, because if I were completely so, I wouldn't say this. But I am not very comfortable with my profession. I never have been. At such times, for my social life and my emotional life, I would have chosen something else. This profession is an anachronism. This life prevents one from being where one wants to be and with whom. At some moment, my little body will be in an airplane, going to give a concert. I would like to have been a doctor."
But today the focus, for her, is illness. "At times I forget that I have melanoma. Sergei Rachmaninov died from this. Now I am involved in an experimental treatment. At times I would like to deny it, to pretend that I don't have anything. Many times I also surprise myself, saying that I have an iron-like health. Because except for this, I am actually never sick. But to deny it is impossible. It's all a little mysterious because they detected my cancer a year after the death of mamá and some months after the death of my best friend. Also, by cancer. When it appeared the first time, it was horrible; I felt much fear. It was like a nightmare. I had thought that I would want to share a little of my friend's pain, as I would feel guilt from being healthy each time that I went to see her.
I lived in terror. I had fear of sleeping. I had fear of myself. Later I was able to think: 'Okay, Marthita, Do you want to live or do you want to die? Which do you want?' And so it was. For now, I am well. I only have to be very careful with stress, from all points of view. Emotional and psychological. What happens is that I do too much. The last two years I have been like a crazy person. Furthermore, I had a a great deal of emotional stress, above all with my sentimental life, which is a disaster. In that sense I am doing very badly. My sentimental life is a desert. What happens is that, in general, I don't feel settled in any respect. It's as if I were always constructing myself. But I think that that is life: until we die, we are always constructing ourselves.