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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Martha Argerich - Evening Talks

The Argentinean pianist Martha Argerich (b. 1941) is one of the great concert artists of our time. Although I've never heard her perform live, this past weekend I borrowed a DVD from the library. It's titled Martha Aergerich: Evening Talks, and is a 63 minute documentary film by George Gachot released in 2002 that delves into the life of this successful performing artist and explores her unique talent and history.

While there are numerous musical excerpts throughout the documentary film, the movie is based around her informal commentary and responses to general questions regarding her work, ideas, and past. Argerich converses throughout the film primarily in French, but lapses into English occasionally to make a joke or speaks in German to communicate with the musicians she is rehearsing with. Of course, subtitles are provided.

In the beginning of the film she describes the watershed moment where she realised she was destined to become a pianist. Although she had been playing piano since the age of three, her mother had brought her to a concert of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. The section where Beethoven composed a cascade of piano trills moved her to tears. Interestingly, she has never allowed herself to perform that work for reasons of superstition. However, Argerich made her debut concert debut in 1949 at the age of eight performing Beethoven's 1st Piano Concerto. Beethoven has been an important composer in her broad repertory ever since.

Argerich has kind words about her teacher Friedich Gulda. Her parents had moved to Austria so that she could study with him in Vienna. Gulda is said to have once met the jazz pianist Art Tatum and said, "Your music sounds like Debussy." Tatum then asked one of his jazz colleagues, "Who is that man?"

The film is full of interesting moments, such as a rehearsal with the German conductor Jörg Faerber (b. 1929) and the Württembergisches Kammerorchester of the Schumann Piano Concerto. She is very adamant - particularly in the final movement - regarding nuances of phrasing and elastic variations in tempo.

The documentary contains plenty of historical footage of her early years as a prodigy. Most of this relates to this or that prestigious international competition award she acquired early on. The good stuff in the film occurs when we hear her reveal present day confessions regarding a period of youthful self-doubt and artistic crisis. These stories are rather telling.

For example, in her 20's she just spent a year or so just hanging out in NY, not playing the piano and "watching the Late Late show on TV." She had "lost her flame" for a period.

At the age of 17 while staying in Florance when on tour in Italy, she wanted to see what would happen if she canceled a concert. She came up with a plot to cut her finger as an excuse, and then make good on the scheme by actually slicing her finger with a knife (after carefully disinfecting it). Her plan worked. She got out of the concert, but later paid the price when the finger didn't heal quickly enough. (Dr. Phil, where are you?)

We observe Argerich drinking Diet Coke in rehearsal and playing excepts of everything from pieces by the great Astor Piazzolla accompanied by a couple of jazz drummers to "Variations on a Theme of Paganini" (1941) composed for two pianos by the late Polish master Witold Lutosławski . (This piece and others can be heard in their entirety on the "extras" portion of the DVD which provides 38 additional minutes of musical performance from unpublished concerts and rehearsals). She really likes performing with other musicians and in concertos. You get the feeling that solo recitals are not much fun for her.

Argerich seems to have a real affinity for the J.S Bach Partita #2 in C minor BWV 826. It is a piece that got her back to performing again after a period of inactivity and stage-fright. It's not a difficult work, but it is one that she can easily nail and break the ice with. She explained that her fear derives from the anxiety leading up to a performance, but once she is actually performing at the keyboard on the stage for an audience, she feels more in control. Included in the film extras for "Evening Talks" she performs the complete final movement of the Bach second Partita (#6 Capriccio) as an encore. Check it out.

The following YouTube clip is not from the documentary "Evening Talks" but from a more recent 2008 performance of the Bach Partita at the Verbier Festival. Her performance is extremely convincing. In my view she seems to "own" the work, and has a natural ability to communicate the work's sheer joy. I particularly like the way that Argerich punctuates the score with jazzy accents to bring out her reading of Bach's architecture. Note how skillfully the theme emerges in her left hand in measure 19. I marvel at her articulation of the four-note jumping motive in the right hand of measure 3, and all of its subsequent appearances.

The YouTube video starts with the performance in progress, at the repeat of the first section. Notice how in the middle of the second section Argerich plays softly until the strongly accented E-natural in the left hand of measure 80. By emphasising this particular note, the piece takes form.

Argerich has had a rather complicated personal life and has dealt with serious health issues, but she now finds time to mentor younger musicians. If you can't get to a concert to hear her perform live, the George Gachot documentary Martha Argerich - Evening Talks will provide at least some insight.

I will leave you with pure music. It's from another YouTube of Martha Argerich performing the third movement Ravel's Piano Concerto in G.