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December 18, 2014
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A candid analysis of Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich with her three daughters, Lyda, Annie and Stéphanie.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Bloody Daughter offers a peek into the intimacy of one of the world’s greatest pianists

“The Martha Argerich case” might be an alternative title of Bloody Daughter, the documentary by Stéphanie Argerich screened at the MALBA cinema on Saturday nights in January and February. Indeed, her mother’s enigmatic personality, always so elusive and fascinating, needed this personal view, certainly interesting not only for music lovers but also for the public at large.

Now in her early 70s, Martha Argerich holds a unique place in the world of piano interpretation. Child prodigy — and then prodigious adolescent — her concerts amazed the great European centres and, as she came of age, she recorded the first of many magnificent records for Deutsche Grammophon. She had all the qualities: acute intelligence, lovely tone, a fantastic mechanism of seemingly inexhaustible possibilities and a sense of style which allowed her to adapt mercurially to authors as different as Chopin and Prokofiev.

At the time (the 1960s), some very conservative critics felt she was too free and were disconcerted by her immense stamina and the electricity that emanated from her, but once and again she was capable of catching the essence of very simple and easy music quite as easily as the most virtuosic, and both the public and the reviewers soon embraced her style. She was a force of nature.

At that time, she visited Buenos Aires in 1965 and I had the great pleasure of interviewing her; although she was shy and disliked talking about herself, she was pleasant and charming, and after an hour it seemed I had known her for years. She gave her teachers their due (Scaramuzza, Gulda, Madeleine Lipatti) and in a very characteristic phrase she said that she played before older pianists (Stefan Askenase) but also of her own generation (Fou Ts’ong) because interpretations are always improved by the exchange of views with other pianists.

Later, in June 1967, I had an informal chat over dinner with Argerich and her then-husband, Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, after a concert for the Prague Spring Festival, and she was completely relaxed. Others have complained of her boorish ways, and I suppose that her moods have varied widely, so I may have been lucky, but I can only report that her charisma is great.

But let’s go back to Stéphanie Argerich. You may think that the rather startling title of the movie refers to the mother-daughter relationship, but when about half of the picture has elapsed you will learn that “bloody” was used as a curious tender epithet by Stéphanie’s father, pianist Stephen Kovacevich (Bishop Kovacevich in the early stages of his career), and there are several long sequences between them, including the rather harsh one about why he never recognized her.

Stéphanie has two half-sisters: Annie Dutoit and Lyda Chen. The latter was the unplanned issue of a shared night between Martha and a Chinese musician. So you see that Martha’s private life was unstable and sometimes stormy. But this film is astonishing, for Stéphanie managed to convince her mother to speak freely on various matters (often not musical), vanquishing her notorious secretiveness and frankly showing her indecisions. And considering that her three daughters have had long periods when they wouldn’t keep in touch with their mother, it is rather wonderful to find them all together and feel that there’s real love among them all.

Stéphanie evokes her infancy years following her mother on tours, and the vintage clips of Martha’s performances are moving for those spectators that admire her (as I do). Mind you, Martha has always had a deep insecurity and stress before a concert; once she is in front of the audience, it doesn’t show, and she plays with adamant firmness. It is interesting that this is vouchsafed by her longtime agent, who appears in some sequences. And it explains that strange syndrome; after her youthful years, she no longer offered recitals nor did she record piano solo scores: she exclusively played concerti with orchestra or chamber music with friends. No other world-class pianist has managed to keep a high-profile career without solo recitals! A great pity, as her recitals were marvellous and her solo records are few.

When talking about music, Martha isn’t articulate, she even thinks that nothing useful can be said about it, that you just have to feel it — which seems strange, because her interpretations have always been deeply thought out. She admits a tendency to fast tempi (and age hasn’t abated that trait) but keeps coherence at all speeds.

However, the film has some serious omissions: it is good that it focuses on the mother-daughter relationships, but it should at least mention some of her great friendships, such as the De Raco-Lechner family, who live next door to her in Brussels. And it would be nice to see her talking with some of her musician friends who play with her (e.g., Nelson Freire, Misha Maisky, Gidon Kremer).

The film is reasonably well made, and gives us an honest glimpse of the private Martha, who now looks her age. It is dated 2012, before the memorable encounter Barenboim-Argerich in Berlin. Martha was seriously mistreated by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic years ago in the last Argerich Festival, and it took some years to convince her to come back; but when she did last year, she played in Rosario and Paraná, not here. Now music lovers can look forward to appreciate that formidable combination next August at the Colón: two great Argentines will play together for the first time here.

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