Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Martha Argerich

Yesterday – Monday, June 5 – marked Martha Argerich’s 82nd birthday. As promised in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, it is a birthday we will celebrate here, now, today, in Dr. Bob Prescribes!

Martha Argerich (born 1941) in 1966
Martha Argerich (born 1941) in 1966

Over the course of her storied career, Martha Argerich has made people say the darndest things.

I present for your reading pleasure a selection of frankly gushing statements by some otherwise jaded, hard-nosed music critics (as if there’s any other kind!):

Writing in The New Yorker in 2001, Alex Ross asserts that:

“[Argerich] reigns supreme over the feudalistic world of virtuoso pianists. Rivals become mere fans around her, lingering at the door of her dressing room and then skulking away. Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person: she is a pianist of brain-teasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music. This last may be the quality that sets her apart. A lot of pianists play huge double octaves; a lot of pianists photograph well. But few have the unerring naturalness of phrasing that allows them to embody the music rather than interpret it.”

Argerich, circa 2019
Argerich, circa 2019

Critic Barney Zweitz, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2015, states that:

“Sometimes it seems that Martha Argerich​ is less a pianist than an elemental force. Tempestuous, emotionally fragile, and astoundingly good, the Argentine with the Mona Lisa smile is not only one of the greatest musicians of the past 50 years but one of the most interesting.”

Writing in The New York Times on March 20, 2005, Anthony Tomassini asserts that Agerich is:

“Indisputably one of the most formidable and exciting pianists of the last 50 years. Ms. Argerich plays with uncanny clarity, rhythmic vigor, wondrous colorings and engaging spontaneity.”

Argerich at the piano with cigarette circa 1970
Argerich circa 1970

The Boston-based critic Ken Ross (no relation to Alex), wrote in 2017:

“If I had to pick just one living pianist, she would be my clear choice for the best of the best.

And it’s not just because she’s a technical virtuoso. She’s a ferocious force of nature, a glamorous goddess who still casts a magical spell every time she sits down at a piano.”

Anne Midgette, writing in 2016 in The Washington Post (where she was, at the time, chief music critic), stated:

“There are a few things everyone in the music world knows, or thinks they know, about Martha Argerich, the Argentine-born pianist who is getting a Kennedy Center Honor on Sunday. She’s private, moody, and unpredictable. She’s wildly beautiful, with a long, thick mass of hair — once dark, now gray — and a radiant, quick smile, and at 75, she still wears the peasant blouses and cotton pants of a teenager circa 1968. And she plays the piano brilliantly, ferociously and, perhaps, better than anyone else on Earth. Argerich is a genuine living legend of the classical music world. But she has never particularly tried to cultivate an image as one. Or at least, not in conventional terms.”

And therein lies the rub: averse to publicity and intensely private, Argerich has never bothered working on her image, which is the virtual opposite of the spike-heeled, sheath-wearing, cleavage-dominated pianistic vixen of the modern stage. Her image has taken an additional beating by her proclivity for unexpectedly cancelling not just concerts but even entire concert tours at the last minute. (No one asks Martha Argerich to sign a “contract”; rather, she either shows up to play or she doesn’t.) Some say she suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. Others claim that her everyday life is so chaotic and fragmented that she is constitutionally incapable of adhering to anything so mundane as a “schedule.” But we’d observe that no matter how presumably “chaotic” her everyday life, Argerich’s artistic life has been one triumph of pianistic discipline after another. Frankly, at the heart-and-soul of Martha Argerich’s admittedly problematic performing career is a world class case of stage fright, a condition brought on by a pathological desire to play everything perfectly.

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