The Argentine piano legend's unexpected appearance in London was a humbling lesson, writes Helen Wallace
Rumour had it she was to appear on a screen. Or as a hologram.
Surely the most elusive, most brilliant pianist of her generation, the terminally glamorous and unpredictable Martha Argerich wasn’t really going to turn up in a small London venue on a Sunday night to share the stage with five other pianists?
Tickets could be bought for £9.50; it sold out in days. But most critics from the national press still believed it was a wind-up – I spotted only the faithful Paul Driver from The Sunday Times and pianophile Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian in the audience.
The event at Kings Place in London was put on by fellow Argentine pianist Alberto Portugheis, who was curating a week of events to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Argentina’s independence. The line-up was eccentric to say the least: pianists Julian Jacobson, Eduardo Hubert, Katalin Csillagh and Anda Anastasescu, a rather fine cellist, Sagi Hartov, the Lebanese flautist Wissam Boustany and a less impressive violinist, Geoffrey Silver.
So, did it work? I’ve probably heard enough Argentine music to last me for the next 200 years, but some of it was worth hearing. Piazzolla never disappoints, and Ginastera’s Pampeana No. 2 for cello and piano is a fascinating meditation, and was beautifully performed. We could probably have lived without Gianneo’s vioilin pieces but Silvestri’s Romanian Folk Dances, Op.16 should be played more often. (Confused? There was a strong Romanian streak in the concert as Alberto Portugheis’s ancestral roots are Romanian). The whole night had the atmosphere of a thrown-together salon or an end-of-term school concert where everyone needs a turn in the limelight.
Then the moment came.
We waited with bated breath for the screen to come down, but here was Portugheis announcing Argerich from the stage. A pause. The door opened and on she swept in the highest black heels, her skin porcelain white and long thick hair now a dignified grey. She was to play Milhaud’s Scaramouche with Portugheis, and the minute her hands touched the keyboard it was as if a bolt of electricity shot through the hall.
Portugheis’s playing, impressive as it is, was no match for her – anyone would probably have suddenly sounded unfocused and out of control. Argerich brought her inimitably explosive quality to the secondo part – and her irresistibly sly amusement. Argerich's only other appearance was at the end of the concert when she joined first the fine pianist-composer Eduardo Hubert and then three pianists for Piazzolla’s La Muerte del ángel. Couldn’t she have tossed us one encore, the tiniest solo? The fervent prayers of the audience hung like incense in the air.
No, she was having none of it. She was there to support a loyal friend, not for money, not for media attention, not for critical acclaim. She couldn’t give a stuff what anyone else thought. It was a humbling lesson in simple humanity from one of the greatest musicians of our time.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine