River Plate Queen

London, Friday 10 March 1978, afternoon ... Cold but sunny. 

At the Royal Festival Hall the darling of the world is down to play the Beethoven C major. If I want to see her I’ll have to be quick though. Gets into Heathrow at lunchtime. 3 o’clock rehearsal. Concert at 8. Back to Geneva the following morning. She might talk, her manager phones (she’s media averse) - but only after the rehearsal. In the hall she’s at the piano, a slight, slim, dark-haired, sinuously-dressed creature, slightly gaunt-cheeked, delicate brows furrowed in concentration, Lorelei of the stage-light hours. She seems relaxed. Her only worry is that she hasn’t played Beethoven One for some time, she doesn’t know what to do with it, and she knows of no recording that inspires her. Once the run-through begins, however, all changes. She knows exactly what to do, she revels in the youthful exuberance of the music, and, apart from a blistering finale, shows no inclination to try and play faster than anyone else. During the ritornelli she turns to gaze into the darkened auditorium, up across the rows of empty seats, 3,000 of them. Spotting a few friends, she begins to mouth a conversation, gesticulating vivaciously, garnering opinion and advice, silently simulating passages – then, just as swiftly, with a toss of her head, goes back to her dialogue with the orchestra. At the point of the first movement’s famous octave glissando re-transition, she strikes her top Fs resoundingly, looks at us, pauses – then slyly opts for a descending scale instead, an alternativo that has her conductor as amused as we’re fooled. The rehearsal shows her to be an agreeably sympathetic partner, working incessantly on points of balance and ensemble. Afterwards (for all her youthful 36) she looks tired (the intense hours, the travel, motherhood). I hesitate. Will she? Waif-like, she meets my eye. Have we met? No, not in so many words. (Just her perfume and aura a while back when she was living with someone in London. But I keep that to myself). Wavering silence. Won’t she? Her voice breaks into a half-amused laugh, the light catching her dimpled chin … come back at 6.30.

I do, slipping in by the artists’ entrance half-an-hour before. She’s feverishly practising in the hall. Seems dissatisfied, hyper-critical. The man from Steinway arrives. We go to her dressing-room. She drapes herself over a sofa, I persuade her to a lemon tea. Yieldingly languorous and seductive, she relaxes, beginning to chat volubly. ‘I need to talk but never have anyone to talk to.’ 30 minutes before the concert, I suggest I might leave. No, no, you must stay, she insists. After all there’s an overture first. I gently break the news. There isn’t. She gets visibly nervous and edgy, pacing up and down, asking what I think of her playing, seeking assurance almost. I make another tea, leaving her not so much changing for the concert as back at the upright, going over passages time and again. Within the hour the performance is over, a crisp, dazzling account full of brilliance and aristocratically expansive phrasing, a love match between C major and A flat, ardent and caressing. Heroic applause. Curtain-calls. Flowers. She smiles shyly. Management and admirers chaperone her back-stage. The Green Room and its sycophancy not being my favourite place, I wend my way into the night, crossing the river and its dancing lights for a coffee and the train home south, leaving our moment to its place in time.

This Gemini from Tropic of Capricorn is complex.

Self-possessed, cool, searing one’s consciousness with all the brilliance and dazzle of fresh polar snow. Nothing ruffles her feathers, the tougher the challenge the more devastating the triumph. Who tensions the voltage of a conductor better? Who owns like she Tchaikovsky One, Prokofiev Three, the Ravel G major, the Liszt E flat? Who commands so independently the Chopin masterworks, Gaspard de la nuit? Pianists stand to cheer.

Moody, flamboyant, lit by gipsy fires.

Insecure, vulnerable, desperate, she says, to find space for herself. Prey to breakdown and soul-searching sabbaticals. Scarred by ruthless opportunists (as many as 150 concerts a year in the early days).

‘I studied with a lot of people – a long time ago [1955-64]. There was Friedrich Gulda in Vienna. He was my most interesting experience, a very stimulating man. He used to tape the lesson and afterwards I had to listen and criticise. That’s very good for you. Apart from some master-classes in Salzburg during the summer, he didn’t teach. I was his only pupil then. He used to challenge me. He was marvellous. Then I studied with Magaloff in Geneva, but I couldn’t say he was a big influence on me because in a year-and-a-half with him I only had four lessons!* I myself don’t teach. It’s a great responsibility. I might try to one day. I would want someone young, very, very young, not older than twenty. I would want to stimulate the student artistically, and help them develop their own way, their own path. That’s what Gulda did for me. He never tried to impose his own will, he wasn’t tyrannical. Of course, though, I was tremendously impressed by his personality and that helped as well. He would say, “I don’t like the way you do that, it’s horrible, but the way I do it might also be horrible!” He used to ask me, too, why I did things in a certain way. There were difficulties, however, because there was a language problem. So we used to speak through signs and by playing. It was interesting to have our own way of communicating. It used to be a lot of fun. ‘There were other influences as well. I admire so many pianists – Rubinstein, Horowitz; so many artists – Rostropovich, for instance, with whom I’ve been working. He is so revealing in his performances, it’s incredible. He’s a genius. Recording the Schumann and Chopin F minor Concertos was very special as a result – not at all like one usually hears [Washington DC, January 1978, National Symphony Orchestra, DG 453 567].

‘When I was younger and I wasn’t on form, I always played frightfully quickly. I was always rushing. Playing rapidly is not a virtue in me, it is a defect. At the same time I must say that very often I seem to think more slowly than I actually play. Take the Chopin Préludes. I try to do them on my recording as I might in concert. Several of them, you say, are linked together. Well, I think the pauses in between may now be too short, yet in my mind they seemed long enough at the time [Munich, July 1974, Philips 456 703].

‘Critics can sometimes be important, particularly if they are fair-minded and constructive, and know the music as a musician would. But how many musician-critics are there? In England there are some who simply like to write well. They put the art of writing first. That’s misleading for the public, and it’s terrible for the artist. One wants to defend oneself, yet can’t. There’s something wrong about never being able to answer back or meet a critic and discuss your playing with him – don’t you think?

‘Over the years my repertoire has been confined mainly to Romantic and modern music – Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Prokofiev – but I’ve played some Haydn as well. Not much Mozart, though. I am very afraid of it. I don’t know why. I used to play it quite a lot when I was young, then … When I play Mozart now, I’m somehow too shy, it’s not relaxed. Beethoven is another matter. There are still problems, however. Sometimes in the classics I think I am too conscious about style and authenticity. Music should be subconscious, a natural thing, like a language. It doesn’t begin here and end there. Again, I know about ornaments and classical conventions, but I don’t always feel such things spontaneously. I’m a natural pianist, and music does not speak for me unless it comes naturally.

‘Such a fuss is made about interpreters these days. I find this déplacé. I don’t feel that being a pianist is important. The composer is always of greater importance. There’s this business, too, about specialisation. Well, to be a complete musician is more valuable. I studied conducting for two or three months. Why? Because I wanted to learn and do different things, I wanted to gain a new perspective. Musical re-creativity is very limited. People expect you to do one thing only. I mean, one is a conductor or a pianist or a violinist. You don’t get many genuine all-round musicians of the first rank. It’s so pointless just being a Mozart or a Chopin specialist.

‘There have been times in my life, you know, when I stopped playing altogether. At nineteen I didn’t like what I was doing. I was not well prepared for an itinerant life and was too young for it … I was also dissatisfied with myself musically. At those moments I felt very lonely, and I couldn’t cope, so I didn’t play, or at best I would prepare things in three weeks … my nerves were awful. Sometimes the piano seems to take me over. I suppose I hate it as much as I love it. It depends on so much. You cannot have anything one way without the other.’

* Magaloff? – or Michelangeli?  New York, weeks earlier: ‘I was one year and a half with [Michelangeli], and I had four lessons. It's not much. Once he said to David Ruben from Steinway, “Oh, I've done a lot for that girl.” And David said, “But Maestro I know that you gave her only four lessons.” And he said, “Yes, but I taught her the music of silence.” It's all very mysterious. (Laughter)’. Dean Elder, Clavier interview, New York, 5 February 1978, reprinted in Pianists at Play (Kahn & Averill, London: 1986).

The substance of this interview with MARTHA ARGERICH appeared originally in the 1979 International Music Guide,

of which annual publication Ateş Orga was then London Concert Critic.

Turkish version: Andante, İstanbul 2005

© Ateş Orga 2005, 2006, 2015

not to be reproduced without permission

Andrys Basten