July 8, 2011 7:15 pm

Strains of mood music

Martha Argerich, performing with cellist Mischa Maisky

Martha Argerich, performing at Lugano last month with cellist Mischa Maisky

Martha Argerich loves the Proms. Martha Argerich loves the Beethoven Triple Concerto. Martha Argerich loves performing with the Capuçon brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier. She admits as much when I meet her in the southern Swiss resort of Lugano, where she has been giving performances at her chamber music festival, the Progetto Martha Argerich, now in its tenth year.

But the Argentine pianist will not be turning up to play the Triple Concerto with the Capuçons at the Royal Albert Hall on July 18. When I ask why she has cancelled her eagerly anticipated Prom at such short notice, she simply shrugs.

Should we be surprised? Argerich, 70 last month, has been cancelling for almost as long as she has been playing the piano. For every no-show, there is another performance of such edgy inspiration that the music world forgives, and momentarily forgets, her apparent capriciousness.

If you want Argerich’s genius, you have to put up with her moods. Both are on show at Lugano. Our brief backstage encounter comes at the end of a recital in which she has cancelled one of two works she was advertised to play.

But in Fantaisiestücke, a little-known Schumann duo for cello and piano, her fingers dart across the keyboard with dazzling speed and intensity.

When I next catch sight of those fingers, in her dressing room half an hour later, they are nervously clutching a cigarette, and Argerich’s conversational responses are monosyllabic. Her audience consists not of fawning sponsors and glad-handers but a multinational entourage of young musicians. She looks sullen. Everyone is treading on eggshells.

Yes, she tells me, she will fulfil her engagement at the Edinburgh Festival on August 14, a duo piano recital with compatriot Nelson Goerner. No, she has no time to talk – not because it is 11pm but because Argerich, renowned for her nocturnal habits, wants to rehearse. Maybe tomorrow? “It’s not possible,” she says, apparently ruling out any form of interview.

Argerich made her debut in Buenos Aires aged eight. When she was 13 her parents were given a diplomatic posting to Vienna to enable her to study in Europe, and at 16 she won the Geneva and Busoni competitions. But soon after starting a solo career she suffered an artistic crisis and stopped performing for three years.

She overcame it by studying with two great pianists, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Friedrich Gulda. The Argerich legend was born when, aged 24, she won the Chopin competition in Warsaw. She stunned everyone with her charisma, impulsiveness and instinctive grasp of musical language – all audible on her 1960s recordings, the best of which have been repackaged as a 70th birthday tribute.

It wasn’t just her mercurial musicianship that put the world at her feet. She became equally renowned for her Latin beauty, ending up with three daughters by different men – composer Robert Chen, conductor Charles Dutoit (to whom she was briefly married) and pianist Stephen Kovacevich. She now has six grandchildren and homes in Brussels, Geneva and Paris.

The music business has always treated her like a star, but for the past 20 years Argerich has increasingly complained of the “loneliness” of the star circuit. She has stopped giving solo recitals. Her chamber music festivals in Beppu, Japan, and Lugano are now the only engagements she can be guaranteed to fulfil. In Geneva, where two of her daughters live, she has no piano in her apartment, and her Brussels home “is like a hotel”, says one of her assistants.

“She always has a house full of young people who want her support. They’re not necessarily the best musicians but she likes to play [the role of] grandmother.”

The role she played backstage after her Lugano performance was that of monstre sacré. But with the encouragement of her agent, who says “you have to catch her at the right moment”, I hang around the next day and slip in to an evening rehearsal. Argerich and four string players are getting to grips with a piano quintet by Liszt pupil Juliusz Zarebski that none of them has played before. She defers to her colleagues on points of interpretation, but there is no doubting who is the powerhouse of the performance.

When they take a break, Argerich heads for the car park: she wants to smoke – a habit she is supposed to have given up after being diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s. Suddenly she seems approachable. She smiles.

Her volte-face catches me off-guard, and I fumble a question about how she has cut down her schedule. “I play too much, much more than when I was younger,” she replies. “This year was a special year, my birthday year. [My daughter] wanted me to be free, and there was too much of this type of combination” – a reference to commitments that had built up around Lugano, including the Busoni and Chopin piano competitions, on whose jury she sits. “I wish I were playing less.”

Argerich gives the impression of someone who can switch on the music at will, without practising, but it is clear from her Lugano schedule that she practises a lot. Is she a quick learner? “I do a lot of things at the last minute, and then I’m in a panic. I don’t prepare anything in an organised way. I’m not like that. I don’t like to plan. Planning makes me unhappy.”

Conversation turns to repertoire – specifically to Brahms, the composer she once described as appealing only to female pianists with a yen for older men. No, she has not stopped playing his music, though there is no Brahms in her current repertoire, and no Beethoven either. Mention of the latter prompts her to admit that “he is my God. He speaks completely directly.” A more astonishing disclosure is that she has never played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, “my favourite”.

“I listen to a lot of music but I don’t have to play it myself,” she continues, lighting up another cigarette. She plays Ravel “because I have fun with it. As a girl I loved Daphnis. Some music speaks to me, French culture speaks to me. I like it, I think it likes me. Sometimes music doesn’t like me. [Ravel’s] G major concerto is easy for me, I like the jazz. The D major [concerto by Ravel] is better music, I love it too, but I never learned it.”

Michelangeli confined himself to the G major concerto. How did he influence her during the 18 months she spent with him?

“I don’t know. He was around most of the time but he wasn’t interested in us [pupils]. He only gave me four lessons. Later he told an interviewer: ‘I did a lot for that girl.’ When asked what he had done for me, he replied: ‘I taught her the music of silence’.”

This is a joke, and we both laugh. She says Michelangeli was generous with money – “we never paid a thing” – but banned pupils from attending his concerts. The only time she heard him was when she sneaked into a box occupied by the wife of Russian virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, who complained about the way Michelangeli played Scarlatti. “She kept saying ‘He doubles the basses!’, and I kept thinking ‘You should know enough about that’ because [Horowitz] did exactly the same.”

She says life is “more complicated” for young artists today, “because of the environment, the media, the agents. They’re told what to do and they are obedient.” But she also cites Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, 20-year-old winner of this year’s Arthur Rubinstein Competition. “Last night I listened to him again on YouTube – he has everything and more. What he does with his hands is technically incredible. It’s also his touch – he has tenderness and also the demonic element. I never heard anything like that.”

Argerich’s colleagues are signalling that they want to resume the rehearsal. A final question: does the drive for self-promotion today undermine the life of an artist? Argerich seems non-plussed. “An artist is someone who discovers things, has revelations, is dedicated. Being an artist is something very big. I don’t consider myself to be an artist. I don’t like to talk about myself. I don’t even have an image of myself”.

The unplanned interview is over. Another puff at her cigarette, and the pianist is back at work.

Martha Argerich and friends play at festivals in the Ruhr, Verbier and Edinburgh during July and August. Details at http://marthargerich.blogspot.com

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