Martha Argerich
Martha Argerich | Credit: Adriano Heitman

Some artists seem eternally youthful, almost immortal: they keep going instead of shifting focus to teaching or other pursuits. Martha Argerich, the enigmatic Argentine pianist, who celebrated her 80th birthday earlier this year, is one of those musicians. Her energy and power never seem to decline.

More has been written about Argerich than most pianists in history, despite the fact that she is a very private person and tries to avoid interviews and publicity. She is still the reigning “Queen of Piano” after nearly 60 years, and has issued a Here are a few landmark recordings that explain why.

Born in 1941 in Buenos Aires, Argerich began learning piano at age 3. One time, when a preschool classmate teased her about being too little to play a piano, she responded by playing back the notes played by their teacher perfectly. Her talent was soon recognized widely, and she gave a public performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No.1, at age 8, and Mozart’s Concerto K.466 the following year.

Beethoven Concerto No.1, Op.15, recorded in 1949:

Mozart Concerto in d-minor, K.466, recorded in 1950 (This recording appears to be about 10% faster than the original, as the pitch is heard higher):

In 1954, the Argerich family met President Perón of Argentina, who asked the 13-year-old Martha where she would like to study. Martha answered that she would like to study with Friedrich Gulda in Vienna, so the parents were given jobs at the Argentine Embassy in Vienna. In 1957, Martha won the Geneva and Busoni competitions, just weeks apart, garnering her international recognition at 16 years old.

Following success at the competitions, Argerich suffered from depression and largely abandoned piano for 3 years, during which she considered an alternate career as a medical doctor or a secretary. Eventually, she returned to piano with encouragement from her teacher’s wife, Anny Askenase. She recorded her debut album for Deutsche Grammophon in 1960.

Argerich cemented her position as the “Queen of Piano” in 1965 by winning the prestigious quintennial International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. In particular, she received the Mazurka prize, after winning the hearts of the jury and the audience alike.

Mazurka, Op.59, No.1:

Etude in C-major, Op.10, No.1:

Argerich has often been criticized for her tempi. Perhaps it is explained by her volatile personality, or her intelligence, but her performances are frequently rushing, pushing the boundaries and challenging the ears of the listeners. Here, she tears through the Chopin Prelude Op.28, No.16 in a mere 53 seconds, which normally takes over a minute.

Yet, her impeccable technical facility and thrilling energy have produced definitive recordings of some of the most challenging repertoire. An example is her 1984 recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 with the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Claudio Abbado.

The brisk tempo adds sizzle to the thrilling score, while Argerich navigates gigantic jumps with ease. The 1932 recording by the composer is actually faster, but Argerich’s command of the keyboard is at another level entirely. For comparison’s sake, here’s Prokofiev’s rendition:

Argerich largely stopped giving solo recitals in the 1980s, citing loneliness as a travelling artist, and has performed mostly with orchestras and with other soloists such as her current partner, Nelson Freire, ex-husband Stephen Kovacevich, and violinist Itzhak Perlman. She flirted with death in the 1990s, suffering from malignant melanoma that had eventually metastasized to her lungs and lymph nodes. After entering remission following an experimental treatment at the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, she returned to the stage.

Despite the illness and advancing age, she seems to have lost none of the power and frightening precision that wowed her audience in her youth. Compare two performances of the same work, Liszt Concerto No.1, recorded over 50 years apart: a 1968 Deutsche Grammophon recording with Claudio Abbado and London Symphony: 

And a 2019 performance with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, with conductor Enrico Fagone:

Argerich’s youngest daughter, Stéphanie, is a filmmaker, and produced a documentary film about her mother, with intimate interviews and materials from the family collection. 

Recordings mentioned:

The Debut Recital
Chopin: The Legendary 1965 Recording
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in G Major
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor
Argerich and Freire: The Salzburg Concert
Bloody Daughter – Martha Argerich, A Film by Stephanie Argerich