Martha Argerich doesn't speak to the press.
She did agree to receive us at her place in Brussels.  3 hours of conversation, spread over several days, filled with music, non-stop laughter and life.  An encounter in total freedom

AUTHOR: OLIVIER BELLAMY - Le Monde de la musique, Feb. 2004 issue


Scanning of photos (credits below) by PHILIPPE MARCHAL

Le Monde de la musique: Martha, music lovers in the whole world ask themselves when you will record a solo CD?
Martha Argerich: Everybody asks me this question, but I am not interested.  If I would play solo in concerts, it would be natural to record, but since I don’t give recitals any more, it would be totally artificial. And besides, I don’t have time.  My life is such a hassle.  People come and go without interruption in Brussels…  I make a confortable living, no need to do anything more.  In fact, I am not interested in myself.  I do not take myself seriously.  I am enthusiastic about others and that makes me happy.  I have played a lot in my life and I never quite liked it.  I do not have much time left any more to do all the things I’d like to do, and playing solo is not one of my priorities.  I am not so young any more (Je ne suis plus toute jeune) and I have earned the right to enjoy myself.  People believe it’s a selfindulgence for me, to draw attention to myself, but that’s not the case.

LMdlM: Maybe you don’t feel confident enough?
MA: I have never felt confident about myself

LMdlM: I have seen photographs of you at 15 or 16, you looked very shy in them…
MA: But I am still very shy…

LMdlM: Still, people are very impressed when they approach you…
MA: It’s despite myself.

LMdlM: How do you see the musical world nowadays?  Is it very different from the time you made your debuts?
MA: A lot of things have changed.  When I went to play in Sicily 20 years ago, there were female cellists who played “en amazone”, because it was judged unseemly to hold the instrument between your thighs.  Once, I was very late the day after the concert, since it always takes me a very long time to pack my suitcases..  An important local figure came to pick me up to accompany me to the airport.  He made a phone call and the plane waited for me.  That is also a different era!  More seriously, I am very surprised nowadays about the success of certain pianists whom I consider as less interesting.  It surprises me more than artists who don’t have enough concerts to survive.

LMdlM: What do you think for instance of the success of Lang Lang in the United States?
MA: I don’t understand.  But conductors such as Christoph Eschenbach and Yuri Termikanov are positive, so….

LMdlM: Are you happy at the moment?
MA: I had a very difficult year because both my brother and Abdoul (1) died.  I think of it every day.  I read a lot of things about death, for example texts of buddhist philosophy.  It does me good.  Happy?  I don’t know.  I try to find things that make me happy.  I like laughing and I need it.  I take advantage of life: nature, books, music, friends… For me, being happy means not undergoing things.

LMdlM: And what does being happy means in a professional context?
MA: I have been playing so much lately, it was like mad.  I realize I did just anything.  In Japan, I participated in 14 concerts in less than one month.  Lots of new works.  I don’t have time to settle down or to really study works.  It doesn’t make sense, the envelope becomes more important than the letter so to speak.

        (Note by Willem:  I wonder to which “ new works” she refers here?)

LMdlM: You stopped playing recitals because you didn’t want to undergo things any longer, but now they happen in a different way….
MA: Others succeed better than me.  Everyone thinks of his career.  My friends see others when they feel like it, they can weigh pros and cons.  For me, I don’t know, I am easily overpowered.   [She looks out of the window.]  November in Brussels is so sad!  Everything looks grey…  When I was young, I had a lot of friends who were not musicians and who protected me.

LMdlM: Is there a composer at the moment that gives you particular joy?
MA: Beethoven.  He is a love of my youth I rediscovered.  I will play his first concerto on tour and I will record the Third concerto with Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchretra in Italy.  And there will be the Fifth in Japan in 2005 during a concert as a tribute to Friedrich Gulda.  Just works I haven’t played for a long time.  Nelson Freire, who often comes with great ideas, suggested that I study the Diabelli variations.  He even got me the score, but I lost it…

LMdlM: So that plan fell through?
MA: No, I’d also like to study the sonatas I played when I was young, opus 110 for instance.

LMdlM: Why did you recently buy a pied-a terre in Paris, just next to Nelson Freire’s appartment?
MA: It’s a very small house, a pied-a-terre, where I can practise with my old friend Nelson living next door, who is my age and who knows me better than anyone else; when we were young, we wanted to learn the same pieces, that was funny.  I haven’t been feeling happy in my home in Brussels for some time now.  I feel like a visitor and consequently I don’t work.  There is nobody my age with whom I can talk about my job, nobody for whom I could play, nobody who can give me confidence.

LMdlM: Let’s talk about the Lugano festival in the Italian part of Switzerland, the Beppu festival in Japan that are sort of residences, where music is played in a wholly different way.
MA: I try to make work things that others have come up with before me. My friend Nicolas Economou organized concerts that presented both famous and unknown artists.  He liked the idea that the audience came without knowing who was going to play or which works were going to be played.  The audience simply trusted him.
There are artists I am interested in or whom I’d like to help.  They are not necessarily the same people, but some artists really deserve it.  These mixed concerts denote a certain frame of mind.  It reminds me of moments I spent with Gulda, Nelson Freire, Rabinovitch, Chick Corea, Nicolas Economou.  We played together or alone and it was a feast.

LMdlM: These concerts are reminiscent of the concerts organised in France (Vence) by Ivry Gitlis
MA: That’s a marvellous festival, where all sorts of music were played. It happened that the audience was asked which works they wanted to hear and the musicians played “a la carte.”  This spontaneity has always inspired me.  I don’t say it’s the best way to live the music, but it’s a way that certainly suits me.  I have nothing against “the church,” nothing against the cycles of the complete Beethoven quartets.  We did the same in Lugano, where we played the entire works for piano and orchestra of Chopin this year.

LMdlM: You have invited Piotr Anderzewski to join Lugano next year.  Do you like this pianist?
MA: A lot.  He is very sophisticated and very natural at the same time.  He is paradoxical and I like that.  We will maybe play Rachmaninov and Mozart together.

LMdlM: Do you like Brahms? Y ou have said before he made you feel depressed
MA: When I play this composer, I like him, but it’s not the kind of music I feel naturally inclined towards.  I studied his second concerto with Gulda, but I never performed it.  Maybe it’s a matter of libido.  Several young women feel attracted to this music: Irena Russo, Helene Grimaud, Karin Lechner.  They often love mature men.  I have never been in love with an older man!  I played his 3rd sonata at some stage, maybe because it’s very close to Schumann.  I love his cello sonatas, the Variations on a theme of Haydn, the sonata for two pianos arranged from the quintette, the Rhapsodies… Quite a few things indeed.  I really like Brahms; Gulda, on the contrary didn’t like his music very much

LMdlM: You often mention Gulda
MA: I was 10 years old when I heard him for the first time in Argentina.  I was delighted.  He could do anything.  It was impeccable pianistically and always slightly radical.  For instance, he didn’t slow down in the second, lyrical theme of a classical sonata, unlike lots of other pianists.  He maintained the same tempo, but the expression was very different.  What fascinated me was that he had a very modern style in a very classical repertoire.

LMdlM: How did he become your teacher?
MA: He didn’t teach and he didn’t like prodigies, he told my mother.  When I first met him, I was very intimidated.  After all, he was only eleven years older than me.  He immediately put me at ease.  Instead of asking me to put myself at the keyboard, he played Beethoven for me and confided he wasn’t too sure about certain details.  That made me feel relieved and I played Bach and Schubert for him.  He loved Schubert a lot.  He said to me: “We are of the same family” and promised to take care of me whenever I came to Vienna.  I was 12 years old.  Vienna!  It was unthinkable, my parents weren’t rich.  And then, luckily, my father was appointed to the Embassy of Argentina in Vienna.  Before I left Buenos Aires, Gulda asked me whether I was in love with someone in Argentina.  I said no.  He was reassured.  It’s funny.

LMdlM: Did he monitor your development?
MA: I remember I met him again when I was 40 years old.  He was furious with me: “What did you do with your life?”.  He blamed me for not improvising any more.  According to him, I was not faithful to the ideals or our youth.  This mixture of freedom and austerity fascinated me.  He said an artist shouldn’t be a painter, but a photographer.  For him, respect for the score was paramount, but when he improvised, he did what he wanted.  He also had a rebellious side that I liked a lot.  In Vienna, he refused the Beethoven-ring, that the Beethoven Academie wanted to give him.  He gave a magnificent speech in which he basically said : You have nothing to do with Beethoven, so why do you think you have the right to give me this ring?  He was highly principled.

LMdlM: You also have a rebellious side.  Sometimes, you are like a little girl…
MA: Stephen Kovacevich, the father of my daughter Stephanie, told me one day there are a five year old girl and a fourteen year old boy in me.  Gulda told me I was probably a hermaphrodite…

LMdlM: You told me Horowitz was surprised when he heard you were a woman after he heard you play on the radio
MA: I am always horrified when people say I play like a man.  Gidon Kremer had a very good answer when he was asked if he wasn’t afraid of playing with a female pianist with hands of a man.  He said: “No, because I have the heart of a female”.  That’s beautiful, isn’t it?  I make fun sometimes with Nelson Freire when we try to guess whether it’s a man or a woman playing when we hear a piano on the radio.  The female pianist I liked best was Annie Fischer.  I was also very impressed by Jacqueline du Pre and Maria Callas.

LMdlM: There was a time where you were often compared to Maurizio Pollini.  You were actually the Tebaldi and Callas of the piano.  Did that bother you?
MA: They always do that.  I was flattered to be put at the same level as an artist I admired.  He was fifteen years old and I was sixteen when we first met at the Geneva-competition.  He played the Appassionata and Petrouchka.  We are always happy to see each other again.  We have been the favourite pianists of the Japanese for a long time.

LMdlM: Have you always preferred “austere” pianists?
MA: When I was young, I especially liked those who played the classical repertoire: Backhaus, Gulda, Horowitz to some extent.  Discipline or austerity is indispensable. Freedom without discipline is uninteresting.

LMdlM: Aren’t you in a decisive phase of your artistic career now where you feel like you need to refocus, like you want to be less distracted?
MA: Maybe.  I haven’t stopped often to think deeply about this.  I feel as if I am drawn into a vortex.  I interrupted my career when I went to study with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, because he didn’t allow his students to give concerts while studying with him.  That wasn’t a decisive experience, but I tried to be somewhat casual about my career.  And then I never stopped playing, except when I was pregnant with my daughters and when my brother died.  Life runs through my fingers.  Maybe it’s time to react.

LMdlM: What do you think of the rather unkind statements of your colleague François Rene Duchable when he spoke of you?
MA: When he said I had become a myth that played only four concertos?  I take it as a compliment, even if I play more than four concertos.  I understand that he felt like ending his career and that he needed to attack icons.  I really like his idea of playing in small villages.  I spoke about this to Mikhail Pletniev who said: “It’s a very nice idea, but people don’t care a jot about Beethoven in these villages”.  You know, everyone has his own way to scale the wall!

LMdlM: Would you be able to give a definition of art?
MA: When Rudolf Nureyev was asked how he managed to “land” more softly on his feet after a perilous leap, he answered: “It’s very simple, you just need to stay longer up there!”

Repères discographiques - (large, slow loading image of page)

(1) "Abdoul" refers to Jurg Grand, who was also a friend of Maurizio Pollini.
        He created the Lugano Festival for Martha Argerich and also
        initiated the series of CD’s “Martha Argerich presents’ for EMI Classics.
        His nickname was given by Daniel Barenboim

Le Monde de la musique, February 2004
Olivier Bellamy
Translation by: Willem Boone

Photo Credits:
1st photo, cover (top) Le Monde de la musique
2nd photo, at left: Patrick Riou
3rd photo, at right: Stephanie Argerich

Photos scanned by Philippe Marchal for those of us not in France.

Interview and Photos: Copyright ©2004 Le Monde de la musique - All rights reserved
(Request has been made to Le Monde de la musique to carry translations.)

English translation: Copyright ©2004 Willem Boone, subordinate to Le Monde de la musique's Copyright ©2004
WebDesign and Layout: Copyright ©2004 Andrys Basten, subordinate to Le Monde de la musique's Copyright ©2004

Interview seems to have taken place November 2003.

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