Part 12: Living legends

Hearing pianist Martha Argerich live is an experience like no other, writes Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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I think it must be impossible for anyone who was born in London to understand what a privilege it is to live here. It is far too easy to take the endless richness of London life for granted, or worse, to dismiss it in favour of complaints about the public transport or the crummy weather. Imperfect as it may be, though, no other city of the world offers as much variety, or as many once-in-a-lifetime experiences as London.


I have a better perspective on this than most. I grew up in Australia and New Zealand, only moving to London when I was 20. I still remember the first time I saw Rostropovich live, at the Barbican. He was conducting, of course, but that didn’t diminish the pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling of seeing one of the greatest musicians of the last century live and in the flesh.


Here was a man who had been close friends with Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Richter, Oistrakh; who was exiled from the USSR after sheltering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his own home; who was himself the greatest cellist of his generation, possibly of all time. He was a connection to a mythical past that might as well have been 1000 years ago and a million miles away for all its relevance to day-to-day life in Auckland.


Classical music as a living tradition only really hit me when I moved here. In London, the legends are not just tangible – they are part of daily life. Here, you check the schedule of any major symphony orchestra and find ten living legends performing a month. Musicians you’ve admired your whole life through recordings are available for you to see for the cost of a ticket.

You would think after nearly a decade here, I might have become a bit blasé about it all. Not so. At Sunday night’s Prom I was lucky enough to see Martha Argerich – my favourite pianist when I was growing up – playing Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, a piece I was first introduced to through her sublime recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado.


I tried not to get too excited. I’d heard a dreadful broadcast a couple of years ago of her doing the same piece, with her ex-husband Charles Dutoit – Sunday’s conductor, as it happened, and one of the few artists she will work with these days. In that performance she had seemed a distorted simulacrum of her former self, her playing mannered to the point of parody. It was incoherent and, frankly, embarrassing.

She had also cancelled the performance of Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto that had originally been scheduled for the second half of the Prom. This, apparently, was due to illness. I could only steel myself for the worst and hope for the best.

I needn’t have worried. Argerich live is like no other pianist I have experienced. There is an immediacy and a directness to her playing that is impossible to describe, except to say it feels as though she is playing the piano inside your head. Every note goes straight to the central nervous system. The outer movements of the Ravel zinged and sparkled with bell-like clarity, while the languorous slow movement – one of the composer’s finest creations – echoed with a lucidity and song-like simplicity only Argerich can conjure.

Afterwards, the audience went predictably wild. She came back for an encore – more out of duty than anything else, I suspect – but she was eventually overcome by the terrible shyness for which she is famed. She had to ask the orchestra to follow her offstage, the only sure-fire way to stop the audience clapping and stamping their feet for more.

But they couldn’t really be blamed. For them, as for me, it was a privilege to see and hear this living legend in person.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
 
Image: Chris Christodoulou