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Respect and love for the music: A conversation with Martha Argerich

Respect and love for the music: A conversation with Martha Argerich

I had the privilege of meeting Martha Argerich, for many the greatest living pianist, when she performed Schumann's concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year. It was a stunning performance, and the audience enthusiastically cheered her return to the City of Angels. It was hard to imagine a more vibrant interpretation of Schumann's music, delivered with leonine intensity, emotional power, and luminous sound—qualities for which she is feted. 

Argerich's career began in her native Argentina, continued in Europe, and was launched by winning the Geneva, Busoni, and Chopin competitions, the first two at age sixteen. This led to international recognition and critically acclaimed recordings, particularly Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, Prokofiev's third concerto and Liszt's Sonata in B Minor. In recent years, her forays into chamber music and duo piano repertoire have produced exciting collaborations with such colleagues as Gidon Kramer, Mischa Maisky, Lilya Zilberstein, and Sergio Tiempo, who are featured at the Martha Argerich Project of the Lugano Festival.

Argerich's reluctance to giving interviews is well known, but she agreed to speak briefly with Clavier Companion backstage after the performance. She is a charismatic personality on stage and off, sharing thoughts about interpretation, performing, and teaching with engaging spontaneity.

Performers often play the same program for a whole season. How does one find ways of regenerating the interpretation to make each performance interesting? 

Of course one tries. Every day is different and we are also different every day. So when we play the same pieces one day after another, there are of course differences. Sometimes we are not feeling well, sometimes the performance is a disappointment, or sometimes it is the opposite. One cannot know why, it's unpredictable. Of course, one has a general idea of what to do in the big picture, especially if one has played a piece or a concerto many times. Also, when you know a piece very well you can try different things and you are freer to sort of improvise around something. Today, for instance, it happened like that with the Schumann concerto, where the performance had more communication and it felt more like chamber music, which gave the conductor and me pleasure.

You adjudicate at international competitions but resigned from the jury of the 1980 Chopin competition in Warsaw because Ivo Pogorelich, a uniquely gifted interpreter, was not chosen as a winner.

Oh, I resigned because he didn't get to the finals, not because he didn't get the first prize. But I have been on the jury of the Chopin competition twice and will be there again in October of this year for the next one.

Performers often interject their own personality and temperament into an interpretation. With the text as a starting point, how much is too much?

Of course the text is the starting point. It's a question of respect and love for the music and the composition. We all have a different handwriting when we write and a different voice when we speak, so our personality comes through anyway. I'm not so stiff in saying you can only play a piece one way. I don't believe very much in this, otherwise one should do a paraphrase, or be a composer or improviser. For instance, when you listen to recordings of older pianists or violinists from the past, they all played the same piece differently. Nowadays, there is a bit of globalization among performers. Because of recordings or because they want to be correct, they don't dare. My friend Ivry Gitlis says that if there is only one way to play a concerto or piece, then it means the music is very poor. There are more possibilities, but it's a delicate balance.

What do you think about when you are playing: technique, expression, or do you create an image? Franz Liszt often taught by using metaphors.

During the playing, before, or after? [She asks with an amusing laugh.]

During.

One does have an image, but it's not visual. It can be purely musical without a story behind it. Of course, some very gifted teachers tell stories to their students, and that is also very useful in order to develop imagination. I know a wonderful teacher who asks his students to play certain phrases of Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, or whatever, lovingly, then furiously, then ironically. The student is then asked to play the same phrase according to what they feel is loving, ironic, or furious. It's a way of developing the possibilities of one's expression and imagination.

You studied with Friedrich Gulda, and I read that he was an important influence as a teacher.

He was not like the kind of teacher I just described and didn't talk about such things. What did you read?

I read that he recorded your lessons and thought that was interesting because it made you listen.

I had to listen and to criticize myself. I had to mark down and say what I felt, what to improve on, and so on. It's good to be self-critical.

Have musicians given you valuable advice about piano playing?

I have heard many important things from musicians, and Gulda was very important for me. He was extraordinary. I remember playing for him once the G minor Ballade of Chopin, and he said, "It's horrible, what are you doing? Let me play it." So he started to play it, and it was also horrible and he said, "Let's try to look for something." You see, he was real and was not putting himself on a pedestal. And he was extremely young, only eleven years older than me, so that makes some kind of difference.

You provide guidance and encouragement to colleagues and aspiring young talent, particularly through your association with the Martha Argerich Project of the Lugano Festival and the Music Festival Argerich's Meeting Point in Beppu, Japan. What advice do you give young artists who are career oriented?

It's a very difficult question because it depends upon the character of the person, the personality, and how they feel things. You cannot say the same kinds of things to an extroverted person as you could to a person who is shy and introverted. They are completely different. And having a career means traveling, which is not very pleasant, although lots of people have someone to accompany them. It's hard for us pianists because we always have to find out where to practice—we don't have our own instruments, and we have to adapt to different pianos.


You often team up with artists such as Nelson Freire and Gidon Kramer in performance of chamber music and duo piano repertoire. Does collaboration help pianists become better musicians?

I haven't played with Freire for a long time, but I play a lot of duo piano repertoire with Lilya Zilberstein and others. Yes, it's very good for pianists to know more music and be able to hear others, not just yourself. That's important because it's a dialogue and one can learn from others. It's inspirational, you know.

Your vast repertoire extends from Bach to contemporary composers. Should pianists explore different genres as well?

No, no, I don't play enough repertoire, but I also perform the Double Concerto for Piano, Cello and Orchestra by Rodion Shchedrin with Mischa Maisky and will premiere a piano concerto by Luis Bacalov that is not yet written. [Luis Bacalov is an Argentinean composer, notably of film scores.] I would have loved to do some jazz. I think Fazil Say and his jazz arrangements are great, and I also like Gabriela Montero, who is a wonderful pianist and improviser. I am a little jealous of that, and now it's too late.

You've done everything else.

But I didn't do that.

Is teaching necessary, particularly with very gifted students?

Without teachers, how could you deduce anything from the very beginning? It's very difficult, and I have never met a person who didn't go to one, but we are talking about professional musicians. Maybe there are some extraordinary cases, or probably a composer who might be able to deduce. But you have to start quite young or the instrument will suffer, and I don't think a young child wants to start alone by himself or herself—he or she needs some kind of help. 

My friend Ricardo Castro is a very good pianist and also the creator and conductor of a symphony orchestra in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. [Ricardo Castro is founder and artistic director of Bahia Orchestra Project, modeled after the "El Sistema" program of Venezuela. He was the first Latin American to win the Leeds Piano competition in 1993.] This is a youth orchestra and also a teaching orchestra because more advanced children teach others who are not as advanced, even if they are of a younger age. 

It's an idea of learning and teaching one another all the time. I've played with them and think they are really wonderful because they also perform. I was talking to my friend Ricardo Castro about the fact that we pianists have the problem of being isolated and practicing alone more than other instrumentalists. It does something not very good to our character and personality. I wish I had done more music making with other people, because one suffers with this isolation thing and constantly practicing alone. For instance, Castro thinks his whole outlook about music and life changed since he founded the Bahia orchestra, and he feels much happier.

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