Martha Argerich


Although not a complete surprise, the announcement this week that legendary pianist Martha Argerich has cancelled her concerts with the Sydney Symphony is a big blow to local lovers of fine music. Argerich is notorious for her last-minute cancellations and, while many will see this as arrogantly temperamental, others place this temperament in the realm of intuition. Her friend and performing partner, cellist Mischa Maisky, has said that her cancellations are "not merely whimsical".

"[They are] provoked by a last-minute sense that things are not right, by an intuition that she will play below her best form," he says.

This intuitive certainty and total immersion in musical performance is evident in Argerich's recordings that demonstrate a sense of awe-inspiring dexterity and vibrate with unique musical personality.

She is arguably the greatest pianist playing today and, if you want to know why, you should turn to Universal's new compilation — prepared locally in expectation of her tour — The Phenomenal Argerich. It is a great introduction to the exciting, focused musicianship of this outstanding pianist. This new two-CD set contains three full concertos and a diverse selection of work for solo and duo piano.

As the excellent cover notes by Cyrus Meher-Homji detail, Argerich solidified her burgeoning reputation with a win at the 1965 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. It was here that one of the jury members described her playing as "volcanic" and "one of nature's happenings".

Although she is noted for her power and dazzling speed — evident here in Prokofiev and Chopin for example — she is also able to play Bach and Mozart with great finesse and delicacy. Her Liszt moves from moments of intense languor to fire.

While her solo work is captivating and well represented here, it is the three concertos on the first CD that demonstrate the depth of her musicianship. It helps of course that she is partnered with great orchestras and great conductors — Rostropovich and the Washington National Symphony for Schumann, Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic for Prokofiev 3 and Abbado with the London Symphony for Ravel.

As Meher-Homji concludes: "Icarus-like, Martha Argerich can fly dangerously close to the sun. Yet such is her structural vision, such the holistic nature of her fabled technique, that she appears in complete command … Defying analysis, Martha Argerich walks the knife edge between abandon and control."

There is nothing not to like about this CD, great music broadly selected and impeccably played. Some of the recordings are old and have been remastered but the sound quality, while lacking the clarity of contemporary recordings, is still of a high order.

Marcus O'Donnell originally published in the Sydney Star Observer