If God ever condescends to hear human prayers, he surely heeded
my most earnest musical wish, for Martha Argerich, against all
odds of cancellation, honored her first Carnegie Hall solo
recital since 1981.
To be exact, it was only a semi-solo recital, as she shared the
stage with the Juilliard String Quartet and Nelson Freire in the
second half. Doesn't matter. Eager fans had snatched up tickets
as fast as they could. An hour before the recital, many a
hapless soul jammed the hall entrance hoping for miracle return
tickets. Any which way you turned, desperate fans were outright
flashing $20, $50 and even $100 dollar bills in the air as if
to buy the hottest Internet IPO's. Alas, with the rarest
exceptions, the door to a historical milestone in modern
pianism was cruelly closed on them.
Once inside, the air was fast becoming unsettling as the hour
rolled past 8pm. Even at this ultimate juncture, the audience
was still beset by the most unthinkable yet painfully plausible
possibility of a no-show. Then lo and behold, out stepped the
smiling Martha as the audience erupted into rounds of applause
and cheers of bravos. Argerich had to acknowledge the
over-enthused audience with half a dozen smiling nods from the
piano bench before sounding the first note. Without warning,
she launched into the C minor chords of Bach's Second Partita.
The hall instantly turned quiet.
The Sinfonia, which assumed a quasi-religious air of solemnity
in the opening page, gave way to a wonderful hush in the
Andante section, which soon resolved into a spirited sprint of
fugal passages. The Allemande was velvet smooth, the sound so
gossamer light it seemed to evaporate into the night air.
Her Courante was quirky, almost improvisational in the way she
swayed the phrasing, creating intriguing blends of harmonies
that gave the illusion that one was hearing a freshly minted
Bach at the spur of the moment.
Her touch in the Rondeaux was at once mischievously bouncy and
elegantly balanced. The Capricio finale was full of her usual
rhythmic pungency and steely resolve, though her penchant for
speeding up was in clear view. Despite the fast tempo, layers
of counterpoint were clearly delineated by her chiseled
voicing. One by one, each voice paraded with a distinctive
character. Her unique blend of athleticism and well-sculpted
fugal lines brought out an irresistible sense of joie de vivre,
driving the Partita to a compelling end.
Once again Argerich had to tame outbursts of audience cheers
before settling into Chopin's Barcarolle. Her opening bass
chord had a rich resonance that provided an engaging backdrop
to the undulating left-hand accompaniment. The right-hand
melody, however, sounded somewhat brittle and disjointed. The
mood was more of a disorientated agitation than gentle sway.
The coda, where she practically doubled the tempo dashing to
the finish, roared with chaotic excitement. Still, one was left
wondering where she was heading. Non-swimmers are perhaps best
advised not to board her musical gondola.
But one only had to hear the ensuing Scherzo No. 3 to dispel
all doubts of who was in charge. The ominous rumble in the
lower register paved way to torrential octave runs. Her
legendary octaves thundered, replete with their former splendor
intact, generating billows of awe-inspiring sonic boom. The
upper-register filigrees, marked leggierissimo, were cascades
of gold dust, made to glimmer all the more by some palpable
nervousness. Most remarkable was the build-up of the coda,
where Chopin's con fuoco marking was greeted with a whirlwind
of fire and brimstone. The few wrong notes didn't seem to faze
her as she brought the Scherzo to a heaven-storming end. For a
cancer patient fast approaching 60, Argerich's fingers surely
are still dipping in the fountain of youth.
By far the most keenly anticipated piece was the Prokofiev 7th
Sonata, a war horse perfectly suited to Argerich's unique
temperament. Right from the beginning triplets, her playing was
marked by high voltage and suffocating tension. Argerich
answered Prokofiev's inquieto marking far above and beyond the
duty call, letting different harmonies collide and wiping out
bar lines altogether in her dangerously volatile tempi. Her
passion at times bordered on savagely beastial, propelled by
relentless forward momentum. Through deft maneuver of dynamics
in the passagework, Argerich conjured terror of the most
bone-chilling degree. Fragments of the opening theme echoed
like demonic snickers. The Andantino section contrasted nicely
with the outer sections and emerged like the eye of the
hurricane, offering only transient relief. The sudden drop in
musical temperature induced an instant chill. The top notes
rang quietly but icily and the whole section oozed a misty glow
of twilight beauty.
Argerich proved to be Siren supreme, luring listeners into near
hypnosis too deep to escape before plunging them back into an
abyss of terror. Few pianists could ever hope to match her
mercurial shifts of temperament, producing searing heat one
minute and imparting freezing chills the next. This was
Prokofiev playing at its most unsettling, deeply disturbing yet
The Andante Caloroso was taken at a brisker pace than usual,
but fit well with her conception of the outer movements. The
few precious moments of respite produced pianissimo passages of
haunting beauty, yet always tinged with an eerie sense of
The un poco agitato section shot off quietly like meteorite
showers against chilly night sky, her tone soft but glazed with
metallic luster. Immediately afterwards, the chordal
syncopations tolled like death chimes from afar, evoking lurid
images of war and destruction. Argerich highlighted Prokofiev's
morbid ingenuity, rivaled perhaps only by Ravel's Gibbet in
Gaspard de la Nuit.
Whatever achievement Argerich had laid down in the first two
movements seemed a mere precursor for the Olympic heights she
was about to scale in the Precipitato finale. Unlike her
previous live performances documented on dubious private
labels, her Finale this time was devoid of frenzy and
unsustainably fast tempo that had previous codas teetering
on collapse. Freed of her former anxiety, Argerich exuded pure
confidence and resolve, flanked by her colossal virtuosity. The
left-hand ostinato motive stood like iron pillars, propping the
rest of the piece like an imposing monolith rising skyward. The
piquant accents were tossed off by her free-wheeling left
thumb. Just about everywhere barrages of heavy chords and
octaves blasted off with detonating brilliance.
Her intriguing blend of solidity and volatility endowed the
deluge of notes with a sense of utter inevitability. For a
blinding moment, one was convinced this was the way to go. Here
Argerich's bravura generated excitement of the most visceral
kind, turning the 3-minute movement into spontaneous combustion
of nuclear proportion and sending the coda to vertiginous new
After the intermission, Argerich emerged alert but much more
at ease to perform Schumann's Piano Quintet with the Juilliard
String Quarter. Her head-long plunge in the initial bars pretty
much set the tone for the entire piece, where, like it or not,
she was to dominate throughout. The Juilliard Quartet was
positively galvanized by her presence and gave all they could.
Despite its best effort, the quartet was occasionally left by
the wayside, struggling to stay afloat on her engulfing sound
waves. The cellist in particular was hard-pressed to stay in
One particularly relished the few moments of quiet tenderness,
when Argerich's bewitching pianissimo evoked rare intimacy. The
ensembleship, though far from perfect, was unfailingly
engaging. Propelled by Argerich's relentless forward momentum,
the Schumann Quintet somehow turned into a concerto for piano
and string quartet.
Taken at neck-breaking tempo, the Scherzo movement became
Argerich's fertile playground on which she dazzled and
astounded with the rapid-volley octaves and galloping
staccatos. In one particular scale passage, she used nothing
but her right hand second finger to optimize the articulation.
The effect was hair-raising.
She freely whisked in and out of the foreground, tossing off
corruscating flurries of accompaniment whenever the quartet had
the main theme. Most of the time, however, Argerich roared
ferociously while the Quartet struggled on.
The Ravel Valse for Two Pianos offered a refreshing change of
mood. For once, the partnership was beyond reproach, with
Argerich's every whim and twist duly reciprocated by Nelson
Freire at the second piano. In their hands, the Valse became a
potent elixir of hallucinatory ecstasy as the duo pianists
locked wing in wing in their flights of fancy. The passagework
was awash with fleeting hues of shifting colors.
In the quieter moments, melodic lines glowed warmly, sending
off wafting fragrance. The sheer range of tonal palette was so
ravishing one wished to bottle them up to take home as
souvenirs. One was prompted to wonder if the Valse had ever
received a more exultant homage elsewhere. What a fitting way
to close the fantastic program !
The encore-hungry audience couldn't have cheered louder. After
a dozen rounds of curtain calls, often accompanied by
synchronized applause and foot stamping, the duo pianists
rendered a breathtaking Valse from Rachmaninoff's Second Suite,
spinning endless pirouettes across the keyboards. The palpable
sense of unbridled joy conveyed by the insouciant duo was truly
Another half dozen or so curtain calls were to pass before the
duo would regale us with a final encore. Much to our surprise,
the duo sat side by side to offer "Laideronnette, Impératrice
des Pagodes" from Ravel's "Ma Mère l'Oye" for one piano four
hands, with Argerich playing the treble register. Their thirty
years plus of friendship found the most expressive medium in
this short piece.
Terse and crisp, the piece imparted irresistible charm and
childlike innocence under their fingers. It was a heart-warming
sight to observe the team deftly negotiating the limited space,
sharing elbow room and shifting hand positions to allow each
other's hands to cross freely. The page turner's momentary slip
of attention was swiftly redressed by Argerich's helpful
pointing, freeing her right index finger to indicate the right
spot on the score. The air of intimacy was unmistakable, so
much that one almost felt like a fly on the wall watching a
private performance in Argerich's living room.
Clearly insatiable, the audience kept clamoring for more,
urging the pianists to come out with a half dozen more curtain
calls, even after the stage lights had been dimmed twice. No
doubt, some had betted on hearing Argerich's solo encores. Fat
chance. Finally, as the hour rolled past 11pm, a stagehand had
the thankless task of removing the score rack from the Steinway
grand, amidst loud boos, before lingering crowds would
The recital as a whole was immensely enjoyable and vastly
satisfying. It was a comeback recital in a very literal sense,
for Argerich chose the exact Chopin and Prokofiev pieces with
which she had made her Carnegie debut recital in 1966. True to
form, her wildly fluctuating tempi and occasional over-pedaling
were in evidence, which, paradoxically, made the whole
experience all the more authentic. For those too busy soaking
in Argerich's transcendental pianism, nit-picking seems to be
the last agenda on their minds.
Nineteen years was far too long a wait for the adoring public.
But for those who held out the hope to the end, the reward
couldn't have been sweeter. Judging from the inexhaustible
rounds of curtain calls, it seems safe to assume most people
went home happy. Now, if only she would play a full-length
Well, there IS a God after all. And I might add, a Goddess as
- by William Hsieh
Photo Credit: Photo at top is by Takeo Ishimatsu.