Martha Argerich, the untamable

by Olivier Bellamy, for Le Monde de la musique, May 2001

Translated by Willem Boone*

The young Argerich and Dutoit (from BBC Magazine)

"To concert organizers who press her, she answers 'Maybe' or 'I am interested,' upon which they hurry to publish the resplendent name of Martha Argerich in order to sell subscription series."

Martha Argerich never truly cancels a concert, simply because she never signs a contract in the first place.  She is the only artist who works this way, along with the conductor Carlos Kleiber.

Her agent Jacques Thélen is philosophical: "Martha never forces anyone to engage her, she lays down no conditions, except for understanding that she is not capable of knowing beforehand what she will do in two years' time."

To concert organizers who press her, she answers 'Maybe' or 'I am interested,' upon which they hurry to publish the resplendent name of Martha Argerich in order to sell subscription series.

To be perfectly honest, you would have to say: "Martha Argerich, possibly, in the program and with the colleagues with whom she likes to play."

She can cancel at very short notice a prestigious concert tour and choose a far less important and less paid concert, organized by musicians with whom she prefers to play.

René Martin, director of the French piano festival of La Roque d'Anthéron, declares "She can cancel and at that time, it's not a serious problem.  What moves me is that she always gives the genuine reasons for her cancellation.  I understand her, because she lives under enormous pressure and I think she must feel very unhappy when she cancels."  She has been known to play several times without fee; last year she phoned René Martin and asked him if she could join her friend Nelson Freire?   It was as if she wanted to make up for something nobody could possibly blame her for.

Martha Argerich doesn't conform to any regular system.  It's her way of being faithful towards herself.  It's also a matter of  "take it or leave it."

Jacques Thélen remembers how he became her agent.  She was at the time managed by Valmalette. (*)  As a joke, he said he'd feel challenged to take care of her affairs.  Taking his words literally, she retorted: "Listen, I don't want to have anything to do with agents, but you are a friend and you can work with me if you want."  And that's the way the contract of the century was drawn up.

She never cheats

Her generosity is proverbial.  She never walks around without a bag, overflowing with banknotes, handkerchiefs and bottles of scent.

"Everybody helps him/herself, and some people make use of her," says her friend Jurg Grand,"  and they think she doesn't notice.  She concedes to a certain point and when she notices people go too far, she doesn't get angry but pities them."

Martha Argerich leads a life that is a very expensive and extravagant one, not in the least because she supports several people.  Money has never been an issue for her, although she knows its value.

Once, she was invited to play in Milano.  After the concert, she was chatting to the impresario and learned that Wilhelm Kempff had played in the same hall a couple of months before.  Rather rudely, the impresario said: "Well, you know, we asked him because his fee is not very expensive any more."  She replied" I will never ever play here again!."  She simply couldn't bear that she was paid three times more than a great artist she admired more than anyone else.

Another anecdote shows how delicate she can be in these matters.  It was during the time she often played in Germany, where Maurizio Pollini had become a real favourite.  Investigating their respective fees, a journalist had found out that Pollini's fee was a lot higher than hers.  During an interview, he revealed the secret to Argerich and expected an angry reply, but she reacted in a totally different way: "I don't mind, there are some very gifted pianists like Rafael Orozco and Nelson Freire, and I believe the difference between their fees and mine shouldn't be too big."  Generous Martha!

When the pianist Yura Guller arrived in Switzerland, destitute, Martha did whatever she could to ensure a decent standard of living for her.  Martha, who lived at the time between Geneva and Lausanne, received her like a queen before she phoned to Menuhin, Kempff and other artists who jointly became responsible for the monthly allowance of the pianist.

On stage, Martha looks a bit like a gypsy who prepares her filters in her kitchen.  Totally at ease, natural, provided she is accompanied by others.   She seldom gives [solo] recitals, not for many years anyway: too hard psychologically.  In her daily life, she is natural, but also totally unpredictable.  She does always the opposite of what people fear or expect from her.  With strangers, she can be very suspicious, looking sideways before she decides to talk to someone or not.

"She never cheats," declares René Martin, "but she is sometimes forced to protect herself, because everybody wants to approach her."  She can be very considerate to others, during a dinner when she feels at ease.  She senses everything, understands and hears everything, even if it happens at the other end of the table.  Speaking a mixture of Spanish and Portugese with Nelson Freire, she immediately switches to French as soon as there are French speakers and to English for the others, ready to translate when she realizes someone doesn't understand.  She loves chatting, laughing until the middle of the night with people who make her laugh, like Ivry Gitlis.  She likes to be surrounded by musicians and friends.  She enjoys far less the company of journalists, agents, producers of recording companies and the merely curious.  She can be icy cold towards people she doesn't like.  Her face sets and it's useless to insist.

"The two sweetest and most approachable people I have met in my life were Sviatoslav Richter and Martha Argerich," says René Martin, "They both had, nonetheless, the reputation of being impossible."

Brussels, Stephanie and the pianists

This exceptional artist who has been described as strange, rebellious and impossible was nevertheless willing to sign programs and pictures for 1-1/2 hours after her last concert in Vienna with Abbado when she had a smile and a kind word for everyone.   It happens only when she chooses to do so, never because she is forced.  She is intuitive and a bit of a sorceress.  She can bombard you with questions, whereas nobody can force her to confess things she doesn't want to reveal.  In friendships, she is loyal.  Passionate and excessive, she may telephone a friend every day (preferably in the middle of the night) to exchange silly things, things about ordinary life, tender words or secrets.  This goes on until the day the calls suddenly come to an end.  You shouldn't get angry or worked up about this.  She is not angry, it's just the way she is.

In conversations she can display an aggressive spirit, with quite a capacity to deny what may seem obvious to others.   "That's typically south-american," confirms Jurg Grand.   With her three daughters she has been an overly protective mother, always worried about not caring enough, always blaming herself yet loving them immensely.  With the fathers of her three children, first a Chinese New Yorker Robert Chen, then Charles Dutoit and finally Stephen Kovacevich, she has been loving if somewhat stifling.  Life with Martha Argerich must be exciting, but not really very restful.  Some have left, to catch their breath.

She currently lives in Brussels with her daughter Stephanie and a group of pianists.  They help her to feel less lonely.  On her answering machine, she says humorously "You have reached Stephanie and the pianists."  During the night, Martha observes, while drinking white wine mixed with mineral water, also playing and listening to music and participating in endless conversations.  She goes to bed early in the morning.

"She loves young people and always wants to help them just as her mother Juanita did.  The latter spent her life helping to engage conductors and opera singers.  Martha does the same with pianists and develops an incredible energy to help those in whom she believes and who have been less lucky than others," says Jurg Grand.

Recently her daughter Stephanie organized a "get together" concert in Brussels, called "The Other Concert," which reunited young artists around Martha Argerich, Ivry Gitlis and Nelson Freire.  Every year, Argerich organizes a festival in Beppu (Japan), based on the same principle.   She also founded a piano competition which takes place in November every two years in Buenos Aires.   Her paradoxical way to fight the system is by imposing her values.  Prize winners of her competition like Horatio Lavandera, Mirabella Dina or Paulina Leschenko have been or will be invited to La Roque d'Anthéron.

You could wonder when Argerich practices.  It has been suggested that she never does, but that is just one of the rumours.  She likes to plays at night, when everybody is asleep.  She reads scores of Mozart and Beethoven and also (this is new and, until recently, a secret) Sonatas by Schubert.  Before she starts practicing, or when she tries out a new instrument, she invariably plays the Schumann Toccata.  It has become a ritual that enables her to establish if she is on form, if she can manage to tame the beast.

At the same moment Sun and black Moon

Martha Argerich is unique in the music world.  Pianistically, she is a sun, but also a black moon.  As far as her career is concerned, she is eternally rebellious.  This rebellion started at an early age, when her mother displayed her as a child prodigy, whereas she wanted to become a doctor.

Maybe she thinks people tried to steal her life away from her.  The fact that she lives during the night and sleeps during the day is also a rebellion against the course of things and the establishment.

Her generosity is totally natural but it's also because she might feel she needs to do something in return for what she has received in the past.  Martha has been very privileged.  After he heard her play, the Argentine president Juan Peron posted her father, who was a diplomat, to Europe to give his daughter the opportunity to study with the best possible teachers.  Furthermore, Elsa Schiller, the leading "High-Priest" of the DG label, granted Martha an annual allowance of 500 DM per month without the obligation to record anything.

She amply deserved these exceptional conditions; who would do the same for any young artist nowadays?

That's why Argerich fights for young promising artists to help them the same way they helped her.  Too bad if some of these artists may not be as promising as they seemed to be at first?

Love is not something that has to be deserved, it needs to be given.  In the case of Martha Argerich, it is given, passionately and sincerely.

* Valmalette: name of a French agency that represents a great amount of classical artists


"Martha is a survival"

The legendary violonist Ivry Gitlis is one of Martha's preferred chamber music partners.  She plays with him in Carnegie Hall the Franck Sonata and Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata on 20 May.

Who is Martha Argerich for you?

She is one of the last pillars of the world.  Jasha Heifetz said "I am a survival" , i.e., not a survivor, but a survival.  A unique person whose traces remain.  She is just she, the others aren't.  There have been Heifetz and the others, Horowitz and the others.  Now there are Martha and the others.

Is she a superstar?

I don't like this word [* In French, the words are "monstre sacré"].  People make a prima donna of her, one who cancels concerts, as they said about Callas and Michelangeli.  I remember a joke in a newspaper.  Someone put the following announcement: "Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli are available for an unlimited number of cancellations."  Can you imagine what it means to play if you are Martha Argerich?

On which planet does she live?

She is fine here, but she lives life at her own rhythms.  It's not she who is out of step, it is the world which wants things to happen at a crazy pace (completely opposite to the rhythm of normal life and music).  And if she is perceived as not of this world, so much the better, and, my God, make sure she remains so!  No cliché applies to her.  On stage, she is pianistic lightning, which is not to everybody's taste.  Someone who plays so well awakens irrational fears.

She has extraordinary looks

At 60, she is a beauty. When she was young, she was very beautiful and at 90, she will still be very beautiful

In Brussels she lives surrounded by a group of pianists…

She lives like the queen of the bees. She is the light that attracts.   Some believe she wants to smother [?] others, but perhaps only those who can be.

One lives very well under her sun.  The best proof are her three daughters: Annie, who lives in New York and who studied art history, Lyda who plays the violin and the viola, Stephanie who is a photographer and a producer and who still lives with Martha.  They are all beautiful, intelligent and balanced.

One phrase to finish with?

I think of  "l'Ange bleue" of Marlene Dietrich who said:  "Je suis de la tête aux pieds faite pour l'amour,"  [ I am, from head to toe, all about love.]  That is Martha.

Nelson Freire sent us a few lines about his friendship with Martha Argerich:

Martha & Nelson in the 60s Nelson & Martha in a recent photo
Photos seen on, at one time

My friendship with Martha dates from 1959.  For me, it remains the most precious gift of my youth.  She broadened my musical horizon more than anyone has done before or after her.  When I arrived in Vienna at the age of 14, my musical interests were limited to the piano.  She made me first discover the world of jazz with Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and Ella Fitzgerald.  Furthermore the violin with Heifetz, chamber music which she already played at that time with the same joy as nowadays.  She also opened my ears for the symphonic music of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Ravel), vocal music (Callas), the cello (Jacqueline du Pre).  Finally, she initiated me into the world of Schubert.

I knew Horowitz as well as she did, but I was the one who made her listen to his recording of Tschaikovsky 1st Piano concerto.  I remember that she exclaimed at the first chord "Oh, my God!."

At the time, she was already a living legend.  Nevertheless, ignoring everybody and everything, she stopped her career because she didn't feel happy about what she did.  Everybody applauded her, but her sense of truth [self-awareness] spoke louder.

That has been a lesson I never forgot,

Thanks Martha,


Photo at top of page: ©2001 BBC Magazine
Permission to carry the translation has been requested of Le Monde de la musique.
* Slight editing for American-English idiom, by Andrys - don't blame Willem.

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