Argentine pianist Martha Argerich is iconic and you have more info here about why she is often named by many critics as one of the best piano players of all time, her life story and how she managed to rise to the top.
Martha’s Early Life and Ancestry
Martha Argerich was born on the 5th of June 1941 in the capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires. Her roots can be traced to the Catalonia region of Spain (from her father’s side) and to Russia (from her mother’s side). The name Argerich is actually of Catalonian origin.
While her ancestors from her paternal side have settled in Buenos Aires since the XVIIIth century, her maternal grandparents arrived in Argentina in the XIXth century via the Jewish Colonization Association, an organization that aimed to help Jews immigrate from Eastern Europe to Latin America.
Her First Years As a Pianist
In order to be one of the very best, in many areas (such as tennis or piano) it is recommended that the children start learning as early as possible. Aware of that, Martha’s parents arranged for her to start playing the piano as soon as she was three years old.
At five years old, her new teacher would be the famous Vincenzo Scaramuzza, who had worked with other important pianists over time, such as Bruno Leonardo Gelber, Daniel Levy, and Mauricio Kagel. Vincenzo put much emphasis on the feeling and the importance of lyricism. Three years later, in 1949, Martha had her concert debut, at only eight years old.
In 1955, she moved with her family to Europe and started studying in Austria with the well-known pianist and composer, Friedrich Gulda. This was possible as a result of the fact that the president of Argentina, Juan Peron, had appointed her parents to the Argentine Embassy from Vienna as diplomats. Friedrich would be her teacher for 18 months.
Among other tutors she had during this time period we could mention Madeleine Lipatti (the widow of Dinu Lipatti), Polish – Belgian pianist Stefan Askenase, Italian classical pianist Maria Curcio, American concert pianist Abbey Simon and Georgian – Russian pianist Nikita Magaloff.
Winning Big in Competition
In 1957, at age 16, Martha became the second non-European to win at the Geneva International Music Competition, where she tied with French pianist Dominique Merlet. No other South American country would win at the competition until 1990 when Nelson Goerner, also an Argentine pianist, was named the winner.
Only three weeks later she also won the first prize at the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition. Since the first prize is not always awarded, Martha became only the fifth winner in the then nine-year history of the competition.
At the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition, she met Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, one of the greatest pianists of the century. At the age of 20, she asked him for private lessons, as she was experiencing an artistic crisis, but they only followed through with four lessons across a time period of a year and a half.
Martha recorded her first album in 1960. It featured works by Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms among others and received critical acclaim for it. She would go on and release dozens of other albums to this very day.
When she was 24, Martha won the International Chopin Piano Competition 1965 in Warsaw, the first and only time a Latin American has done so, which garnered her international recognition. Also in 1965, Martha made her debut in the United States of America by performing at the Lincoln Center during the Great Performers Series.
As she spoke about feeling lonely on stage when she has a solo performance since the 1980s Martha has focused more on chamber music and concertos, seldom staging solo performances.
Using her fame, influence, and popularity, Martha often promotes young talent, usually as a member of a jury at competitions or through her festival which takes place yearly, the Argerich Music Festival and Encounter, which had its debut in 1996 in Japan.
Her dedication was obvious during the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1980 as when Yugoslav pianist Ivo Pogorelić was eliminated during the third round, Martha left the jury in a sign of protest, calling him “a genius”. Other artists who have benefited from her support include Mauricio Vallina, Roberto Carnevale and Gabriela Montero.
Critical reception of her albums
As you can probably tell, the albums released by Martha Argerich tend to receive extremely positive reviews. Her 1985 album “Franck: Violin Sonata; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata Op. 94a” received 5/5 stars from AllMusicGuide, praising her passion. Although not all of her albums were reviewed by the website, from those that did, ten have received a perfect score.
Martha’s History at the Grammys
While continuing to work during the 1970s, she received her first Grammy Award nomination in 1978 for “Best Chamber Music Performance”. She went on to receive 15 nominations in this category alone, winning in 2005. Martha won two other Grammys at the 2000 and 2006 ceremonies for “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (With Orchestra)”.
In 2006 Martha was nominated for three awards, including her only nomination in the “Best Classical Album” category for “Martha Argerich & Friends: Live From the Lugano Festival”. In 2018 she received her 20th nomination overall.
Other Awards Received by Martha
Alongside the previously mentioned awards, she has many other awards to her name, such as the Claudio Arrau Memorial Medal which she received in 1997 and the Diamond Konex Award in 1999 which named her “The Most Important Classical Musician of the Decade” in her home country.
In 2012, Martha was inducted into the Gramophone’s Hall of Fame and in 2016 she was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, alongside other iconic entertainers such as Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, and the band Eagles.
Her success is not limited to just the western world, as her winning the Praemium Imperiale and receiving The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, both in 2005 from Japan prove this. She is one of the few non-ethnic Japanese to receive The Order of the Rising Sun.
The Personal Life of Martha Argerich
Martha is currently single, but she was married three times. She was first married to Chinese composer and conductor Robert Chen in her early 20s but divorced from him in 1964. Together they have a daughter named Lyda Chen-Argerich. She would have another daughter, Annie Dutoit, during her marriage to Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit.
She was married to Charles between 1969 and 1973. Her last marriage was a brief one, with Croatian-American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, during the 1970s. The marriage resulted in Martha having her third daughter, Stephanie.
When she turned 50, in 1990, Martha discovered she had malignant melanoma, a type of cancer. She underwent treatment and the disease went into remission. In 1995, unfortunately, the cancer returned and metastasized to her lymph nodes and lungs.
In order to save her life, Martha decided to try an experimental treatment that took place at the John Wayne Cancer Institute located in Santa Monica. The treatment was overseen by famous oncologist Donald Morton. The experiment was a success and the cancer went into remission once more. As of today, Martha is cancer-free.
As a thank you for saving her life, Martha held a performance at Carnegie Hall with the benefits from it going to the Institute.
Portrayals of Martha in Media
Despite her fame, Martha is well-known for her aversion when it comes to the press. As a result, she may not be as well known to the general public as some of her peers.
Regardless, French-Swiss director Georges Gachot released in 2003 an acclaimed documentary with the title “Martha Argerich, Evening Conversation”, which presented a dialogue with the pianist and moments of her performances. A topic Martha especially touches on is her lonely early life as a student in Europe.
Her youngest daughter, Stéphanie Argerich Blagojevic, also directed a documentary about Martha. The documentary film is called “Bloody Daughter” (alternative title: “Argerich”) and was released in 2012 to mixed and positive reviews. The production is based on a film which had been shot since Stéphanie was a child. It won a Golden FIPA and a Michel Mitrani Award.
Despite staying away from the spotlight, Martha has maintained a successful career since the 1960s, being active even today, when she is in her late 70s.