, January 2009
Martha Argerich is one of the most compelling musicians on the face of the earth. After a recent concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, The Philadelphia Inquirer critic, Peter Dobrin, had this to say about her playing: “It seems to me she has at least two qualities no other pianist possesses: no one else can produce so many colors without any of them being percussive, and no one has hands that lead lives so completely independent of each other.” It is natural to be interested in her biography, as well, which is rather exotic. She was born in Argentina, studied in Europe with legends Geza Anda and Michelangeli, has been married three times, is an enthusiastic supporter of upcoming young musicians, and has had controversial stints as a competition judge. But she is also an intensely private and frightfully shy person, and so access to her by journalists has been very limited. This film, made in 2002 by Georges Gachot, does not remedy the situation much. This is clearly an interview film with strict guidelines attached, and as such, somewhat boring. Argerich is a woman of great passion and emotion, which comes through in her comments, but it comes through with far greater cogency in her playing. She offers little insight into her interpretive method, perhaps because it is an impossible quality to capture in words. We are told that “Prokofiev likes me a lot.” Okay, so she envisions the composer as muse, watching her playing and passing judgment. A lot of musicians work the same way.
The omissions in the film are curious. I really don’t care about Argerich’s personal life, a topic scrupulously avoided, but a couple of key aspects of her professional activities are barely mentioned. There is a charming segment on the influence of Anda, including an odd clip of him playing rather charmless Beethoven, but almost nothing about the other important mentor in her early days, Michelangeli. And although the film includes segments of lovely live performances of Argerich accompanying some of her youthful stable of young colts, she does not speak of this really significant aspect of her life in music in recent years. That there are always a few young things lounging about while she is being interviewed only amplifies the absence of this topic.
For some, especially hard-core Argerich fans, there are some strong elements in the film. For starters, the sheer honesty and natural strength of the woman are quite stunning. She wears little or no makeup and has broadened physically a bit in her maturity, and yet her natural beauty beams through. She adroitly, and charmingly, switches between at least four languages. And as interview films go, we get very little of the questioner. Within the proscribed limits of the subject matter, she is quite loquacious, as if Gachot merely pushes a button and the rest is Argerich. Of course, there are plenty of wonderful clips of Argerich playing over the years, but with no revelations, as all of the material derives from her famously limited repertoire. There is a bonus track of seven short pieces, all familiar. Gachot is an interesting filmmaker, and he clearly adores his subject, but anyone other than Argerich fanatics will be just as well served by YouTube, Wikipedia, and of course, her astonishing catalog of recordings.