How welcoming is a piano.  It has a warm magnetism that pulls at the eager corners of hope – “Sit down.  Press a key – a beautiful sound will happen.  Press another, and music will happen.”  No nightmares of untrained bows shrieking across reluctant metal strings, no blood-engorged faces from trying to cram wind down a perforated stick, just tones, there for the sampling.  That inviting aura tricks us into feeling that, given enough time, anyone can master the instrument.  Even confronted with a rising star of the keys, there is something deep within us that still somehow believes, yes, I could do that.

And then, perhaps twice a century, nature creates a musician whose talent is so immense, whose natural gift lies so far beyond the ability of Effort and Persistence to achieve, that we realize ourselves to have been the dupes of the piano’s beckoning call, its pretense of effortlessness.  There are hidden and secret worlds within those keys, available to a very few, whose gift it is to pull back the curtain on new kingdoms of sound that we will never be able to produce, but that change our conception of what music is.

It’s easy, and fun, to argue about which historical pianists fit that mould, but when it comes to the living, to the question of what musician most unapproachably combines raw natural musicality with effortlessness of execution in all conceivable genres, the great unavoidable name is Martha Argerich (b. 1941).  Whether you place before her the devilries of the Third Piano Concerto of Prokofiev or the somber reflections of Mozart’s Twentieth, her complete mastery of her instrument has allowed her to somehow find new stories to tell in works that have been with us for centuries.

Argerich’s musical gifts are beyond explanation and as such they are of a piece with a life made up of instincts and impulses that defy ready categorization.  Her story is one of rapture and frustration pushed forward by a mind entirely unwilling to be tyrannized by the future.  The concerts she gave were as legendary as the ones she cancelled at the last minute were legion.  Behavior that would have been the end of any other musician’s career was simply accepted the world over as part of the price that one paid for maybe, perhaps, having the chance to hear her reluctant art for one night.

Argerich was born to a raconteur of a father and a social justice dynamo of a mother in Buenos Aires a half decade before Juan Peron’s first term as president.  The Argentina of her early youth was a crossroads of foreign influences, never so apparent as on nights when world famous classical performers would give concerts attended avidly by an audience composed equally of locals, European Jews who had escaped the horrors of the Second World War, and ex-Nazi officials who had made Buenos Aires their place of refuge.  Questions of musical performance mixed in the air with deep questions about the country’s political and social future, and somewhere in the midst of that, caught between a conservative father and liberal mother, an international treasure was born.

Argerich’s life trajectory was launched in a moment of defiance.  She was placed in a preschool at the age of three, where one of the boys made it his mission to taunt her at every opportunity with a series of dares.  These were generally on the order of, “I bet you can’t stand on the table!” But one day, noting the piano that a special teacher regularly came in to play for the children, he decided to up his game, uttering the fateful dare, “I bet you can’t play the piano!”  Whereupon Martha, who had never played a note in her life, defiantly strode up to the instrument and effortlessly picked out all the songs she had heard the teacher playing to them before.

The feat of memory and musical ability was noted by the staff, and Argerich’s parents were alerted to the fact that they possessed a child of seemingly exceptional talent.  Her mother, Juanita, was an unopposable force in the pursuit of what she believed to be right and necessary, and upon discovering her daughter’s talents she bent all her considerable energies to achieving its fullest development, bursting past doors that were ordinarily closed to the hopeful parents of young prodigies, never accepting no as an answer in the quest for the best teachers and opportunities.

At the center of this whirlwind of parental organization stood the child, who was not at all sure that she wanted to make of her one-time feat the stuff of a life, and in fact developed a terrible fear of performing for others that was the bane of her mother’s efforts.  Juanita secured by force of personality appointments with world-renowned musicians to hear Martha’s abilities, only for the young genius to hide under tables to avoid the dread moment of performance.  When she was eventually coaxed from her improvised havens, however, the response to her gift was uniformly enthusiastic.  She was taken up as an exceptional case by the famous pedagogue Vicente Scaramuzza, who was as known for berating and belittling his students as he was for his comprehensive knowledge of the anatomy of musical production.

He had made his life’s work the analysis of the musculature of the hands and arms, and how to use that knowledge to inform piano technique, and watching Argerich’s unique hand positionings in the midst of one of her monumental concerto performances, it’s hard not to believe that some of Scaramuzza’s influence still lingers there.  From Scaramuzza, Argerich experienced the instruction technique of a past generation, heavy on mechanics and fear, but without much by way of conveying the joyous spirit at the heart of so much music.  For that, she had to wait for the arrival of Friedrich Gulda in 1953, a young genius who heralded the arrival of a new approach to classical music performance.

Gulda showed Argerich new musical vistas which highlighted the fun and irony located within so much classical music, and in 1955 her father was appointed by Juan Peron as ambassador to Vienna for the express purpose of placing Argerich in the same city as Gulda, that he might continue to develop her talent.  Together, they hunted through the classical repertoire, searching for hidden inner voices to highlight.  By combining the mechanics of Scaramuzza and close listening of Gulda with her seemingly bottomless natural talent, Argerich exploded on the world scene in 1957 when she, with the most minimal of preparation, swept into both the Busoni and Geneva musical competitions and took first place in both.

To have succeeded in the first at the age of sixteen was a feat, but to turn around and present a wholly different body of works in an immediately subsequent competition was an act full of risk that she carried off by the grace of her phenomenal ability to learn new music of the most tortuous difficulty virtually on site.  Only one moment in a career spanning a half century did her photographic musical memory fail her in performance, a feat rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that Argerich’s practice schedule is so fragmentary when placed against those of her contemporaries.

She threw herself into a touring schedule on the strength of her double triumph and though her stage fright never went away, she committed herself to a hectic round of performances and a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive contract that saw the release of her first LP in 1961.  Universally applauded as The Next Thing in classical music, she nonetheless felt a deep dissatisfaction with the direction of her life and for three years  she completely removed herself from the world of performance, spending long months doing nothing in particular with fellow musical recluse Arturo Michaelangeli, traveling to America, and devoting herself to the careers of struggling musicians while virtually ignoring the fostering of her own.

While most artists have to keep playing in public to support themselves, Deutsche Grammophon was willing to extend funds simply on the promise of future recordings, so successful had her first album been, and as such Argerich was able to wait until such a time as she felt she had important new things to say with her instrument.  She found a new lease on her instrument after studying with Stefan Askenase in 1964, and made her London debut that year.

Her approach to concerts and album recordings was one that only she could have successfully managed.  Whereas a Gould or a Michaelangeli might spend hours upon hours in a studio, agonizing over the production of the ultimate recording, Argerich liked best sweeping into the recording studio in the middle of the night, playing her pieces a few times, and then leaving again, trusting to the sound engineers to simply pick the best cut.  Likewise, for concerts, she eschewed over-preparation in order to preserve the spontaneity and uniqueness of each concert experience.  This made conductors more than a little apprehensive, especially given Argerich’s tendency to play at speeds hitherto unknown in the concert hall, but in performance after performance her memory held, orchestras were led rather than cowed by her example, and brilliance was the steady result.

Professionally an enigma, she was personally even more so, at her happiest when her home was a sort of commune for struggling musicians and friends whose problems and struggles she could invest her energy in so as not to think about the next steps in her own career, which interested her far less.  She had three daughters, of whom the first spent most of her youth with her father, and the next two managed the rich chaos of home life with Argerich as best they could.  Everything about her choices spoke to an unwillingness to permanently define the future, from her refusal to sign contracts with orchestras so as to allow herself the freedom of canceling at the last moment, to her distaste for men who demanded too restrictive an exclusivity from her.  Freedom and spontaneity seem to have been the winds that have propelled her life’s course, and woe betide any who sought to bar her way with constraints and commitments.

Rarely performing as a solo artist in recent decades, her recordings and concerts have centered around making music either with orchestras or a small group of reliable friends with whom she has steadily expanded the repertoire of what the classical-going public has come to expect from their concert experience.  Arguably the greatest pianist of her age, she has been entirely satisfied to play the often subservient piano parts in cello and violin sonatas with people whose musicianship she admires and friendship she relies on, and the result has been a series of intimate, spontaneous albums that beautifully broke up the bombast of the usual classical piano scene.

With pianists, you often get a couple of composers or genres you can rely upon them to shine in conveying.  The skills which allow them to be, say, a brilliant interpreter of Romantic music stand rigidly in the way of also being a great Baroque performer in a fashion that seems insurmountable, until you hear Argerich.  She wrings meanings out of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Prokofiev alike that are somehow supra-authentic each in their own way in spite of the radically different styles each demands.  Ask her teachers, her colleagues, how she manages such seemingly impossible breadth of stylistic competence, and they are, to a person, at a complete loss.  There’s simply no explaining where talent and insight like that come from, or how they get directed into those startling moments of breath-catching invention that are the crown of her spontaneous live performances.  Our brains want to grasp it all, make sense of ability on that scale, but we cannot, and we are left with the fact of it, in all its terrible, brilliant majesty.

FURTHER READING: Olivier Bellamy’s Martha Argerich: L’Enfant et les Sortileges (2011), timed to coincide with her 70th birthday, is a wonderful book that tries gamely to make sense of the many contradictory impulses and gifts that sum to the person of Martha Argerich.  I believe there’s also a version out in German.

FURTHER LISTENING: The 48 cd Deutsche Grammophon/Philips box set of her complete recordings is an absolute steal at about $108, but if you’re looking more to wet your beak, it’s hard to go wrong with her 1967 Prokofiev 3/Ravel piano concerto recording or her 1982 Rachmaninov 3/Tchaikovsky concerti.  For the smaller scale, her solo skills are on full display in her 1975 Ravel disc, or her 1977 Chopin preludes, while her later recordings with Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky show a whole different part of her skills.  Her last recording (or next to last – I’m not quite sure) from 2014 features her performance of the Mozart 20th concerto, a specialty of her old teacher Gulda, and so has an extra bit of emotional resonance to it which is thoroughly lovely.

For now, though, here’s some stuff to sample!

Lead Photo: Martha Argerich performing at the Colon Theatre, July 29, 2015. Credit to Gobierno de la Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Argentina, via Wikimedia Commons

Get to know more trailblazing Women In Music in Dale’s column.