Martha Argerich (Marka/Alamy)Martha Argerich (Marka/Alamy)

In a unique event, Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich, two titans of the piano, interview one another for Gramophone...

Stephen Kovacevich, an international concert pianist in his late sixties, is seated on the balcony talking to Gramophone’s Jeremy Nicholas. Kovacevich has taken part in a concert the previous evening, part of the Verbier Festival, playing two Beethoven Bagatelles, the Sonata in A flat major, Op 110, and Mozart’s Air and Variations in G major for piano duet. 

Enter Martha Argerich, also an international concert pianist in her late sixties. She, too, played in the concert – Bach’s Partita No 2 in C minor, the Mozart duet and in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. 

She and Kovacevich enjoyed a brief marriage in the 1970s (their daughter Stephanie and baby grandson are asleep in an adjoining room). They have so much in common, yet it is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar pianists and people. Last night had been a fascinating opportunity to observe, one after the other, two contrasted approaches to the piano. It’s baking hot on the balcony, so all three retreat into the cool of the main room to talk.

Argerich, famously, rarely gives interviews. It is even rarer – possibly unique – to have two pianists sitting side by side, both of whom were accorded two volumes in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Century series. The idea is that these two, who have known each other for so long, will interview each other (occasionally helped along by Nicholas). But as soon as the tape recorder is switched on, Argerich becomes flustered, gets up and starts pacing the room. It makes her, as she admits, feel physically ill. Soon, though, she relaxes, and is eager to talk about the previous evening. She had opened proceedings by making a hurried entrance, taking a perfunctory bow and, without a moment’s preparation, hurling 
herself into the Bach. 

MA: That’s because I  wanted to get it over. I am very impatient and I didn’t especially want to play also. So that’s why I – pah! – like that!! If it looked as though I didn’t want to be there, that is true. Yesterday was like that. I really don’t like to go to my own concerts. Alone, I  don’t like it. Of course, if I’m with other people it’s different. Actually it’s always been like that playing alone. When I was three or four, I had to play and I was running on stage – vish! like that! – and then run off. Yes, I remember. I was shy. Very shy.

JN: It’s a dichotomy. You’re shy and yet your profession demands that you are not shy!

MA: Well, I am a Gemini. A strange contradiction for a performer, n’est-ce pas? But one doesn’t choose to be a performer. One doesn’t choose one’s character. I think one’s character is formed early and then you happen to be a performer later. It’s not your free choice. You don’t know what’s going to happen psychologically and emotionally. Maybe you want to learn and move closer to music and, yes, to what you love – but that doesn’t mean that you enjoy the performing.

SK: It’s a kind of torture as well, sometimes. 

MA: Whenever I’m on my way to a concert I  look at all the people and think what’s happening to them? They’ve just finished work and now they’re all off…

SK: …to the cinema!

MA: Yes, to the cinema. And I think ‘Me too!’ Exactly. I always want to go to the cinema. Not to my concert. I never think ‘I am about to play the Liszt Sonata, it’s terrific, I play it wonderfully and I can’t wait to share it with the public’. Never.

SK: That’s film stuff.

MA: I try to get inspired. Once I was to play the [Tchaikovsky] B  flat minor Concerto, I  remember, and there was a picture of Liszt on the wall. And from that, yes, I got inspiration. Just by looking at his picture. You see?

SK: But Martha, when you play one of the monsters, the Rachmaninov Third, surely that is always a worry, isn’t it?

MA: Yes. The last time I played it was when I  had a rehearsal in the morning in Nuremberg. And I thought ‘Oh my God, I’d like to play Haydn D  major. Or even Ravel.’ 

SK: You see Martha, you and I don’t type our performances. There are 16-year-olds who can play Rachmaninov’s Third, but they type it. It’s extraordinary but if you really play with fuoco, then it’s very dangerous and thrilling. Same with Bartók Two. Or even Brahms Two.

MA: Everything!

SK: I know, but there are pieces that are more difficult than others, for sure. 

(Both agree that they don’t really like to play in front of an audience.) 

MA: Audiences are not important for me now and they never were. I have reached a stage when now I am even more terrified of house concerts where the public is very near. If I have to play when they are close, then I am quite afraid. It happened to me…well, I was unwell and I was in California but I decided to play four-hands with a friend for his father’s birthday. We prepared and I arrived there and there were crowds of people there for the birthday party. I was terrified. I went upstairs and slept for two hours and then I came down. There were four people left. And I said ‘Now I can play’. OK, I hadn’t been playing, I’d been ill – but I was terrified.

(The conversation moves to consider the biggest anxiety associated with performing. Argerich denies a fear of others’ expectations of her.)

MA: Nooo, no, no. I remember when I was nine I was playing the D  minor of Mozart and I went to the bathroom and I knelt down and I said ‘If I  make a mistake, I will die!’ To myself, I said this – and I was nine. OK? You see? This is not the problem of the audience exactly. I don’t quite know what my problem with performing in public is.

SK: It can be the acoustic, right?

MA: Oh yes. Very much. And the light!

SK: Oh yes – if it’s too bright it drives me crazy. If the acoustic is generous it is astonishing how much better you play, because you don’t feel as though you are being observed with clinical ears. Some acoustics bring out the best. There’s a hall in Japan that is so perfect it’s actually scary! I’m not criticising it, it’s perfect – but you also feel that the public don’t dare move. You hear everything.

MA: From the public, too!

SK: And the corollary of that is the disappointing halls we’ve played in that have been built in the past 10 or 20 years. There’s an obsession with clarity and not with warmth and a stinky goulash of sound, the kind that makes people free. I played in the Musikverein for the first time two years ago. I expected to be nervous. I was hardly nervous at all. The sound was so marvellous that it actually helped me. At other times it feels like going to the dentist. If I’m asked to play in a hall that I  know to have a bad acoustic I turn it down.

MA: So do I.

(JN observes that Argerich was constantly “flutter-pedalling” in the concert the night before.)

MA: Yes, but I do all kinds of things like that. It’s not something I think about or prepare beforehand. I needed to do something to get into the piano. Yesterday it was difficult to get in. You see? 

SK: Yes, I quite agree. I don’t know technically what it means but sometimes, when you feel comfortable, the piano is set up like a soft loaf of bread. And when it’s uncomfortable it feels like an ice cube. For me, and it depends what you’re playing, you have to set the atmosphere. And last night I didn’t like the first sound I made on the piano because the sound was too instant. ‘I’m playing too loud – don’t want to play so loud.’ This thing about pianos is extremely important and very subtle. But I  don’t know how it can change so much from morning to evening.

MA: Playing the piano in the evening it was as if there were little mountains in the bass which I  had to get over. 

SK: So as we are playing, we are adjusting, a million times…

MA: …always adjusting. Also remembering what has happened before, how you played it previously. But yesterday in the Bach I was not having fun which I usually do have. 

JN: But the Shostakovich took off.

MA: The Mozart too. 

JN: The Mozart was delightful. But the Shostakovich with more collaborators was a different kind of challenge. You’ve played with Maisky and Bashmet many times, but the others? How easy is it to drill yourselves into an ensemble in a short time?

MA: Mischa Maisky, Yuri Bashmet and I have played together many times, of course. We know each other, we get along as people, and so the work is pleasant. The Norwegian [violinist Henning Kraggerud] and I  had played together in Stavanger many years ago (he played the viola in the Schumann Quintet) but with Joshua Bell, this was the first time. And I  must say I enjoyed it. But you know before [this performance in Verbier] I listened to Shostakovich playing the Quintet. I have a recording…

SK: …of Shostakovich himself playing it?

MA: Yes, it’s very different. But the one I really like is Glenn Gould – the first and the last movements are incredibly beautiful and very lyrical. Really beautiful. 

SK: And Shostakovich?

MA: Shostakovich is very dry and quite fast. He was always a very fast player because he was a very nervous person. But the strings are incredibly romantic, so probably that’s what he wanted. You know this story? Shostakovich meeting Prokofiev? Shostakovich was younger than Prokofiev and they had this meeting in Leningrad, St Petersburg, wherever. The young composer played something of his for Prokofiev. Prokofiev said, ‘Could you play it a little slower? Because I don’t
understand it.’ So he played it again a little slower and Prokofiev said ‘Thank you – now I understood’. 

SK: Yes, well tempo is something – I don’t know if you have the same experience, Martha – that let’s say the performance is broadcast and then you hear a tape of it later. Almost always it’s quicker than I want it to be. I think you have to take the tempo from your stomach and not from your internal ear. 

MA: How do you hear from your stomach?

SK: When I give myself the upbeat, I don’t listen to the music just in my head. Somehow I try to get my body to give the upbeat as well. Look at Beethoven’s tempo markings – because he was deaf he could only go from his internal voice. If you ask me how the opening of the Hammerklavier goes [sings opening bars] – great. That’s 138 approximately. But you do that on the piano and it’s just slightly too fast. 

MA: And modern pianos have a “wooor” after them. Not like the older ones which went “tak” – and that was it. So that affects speed also. I  guess when you have more “wooor” you have to play a little bit slower, otherwise… 

SK: When I was a student I remember learning the Waldstein Sonata. I thought ‘I’m from Berkeley. No compromises. We don’t sell out.’ So the tempo had to be exactly what was in my head. [Sings opening bars.] Sounds great when you do it with your mouth but not when you don’t have the sound of the piano.

MA: Yes, when one sings, you sing much faster. When someone asks me what I want to do for a tempo, I say don’t ask me to sing it because I will play it differently. So for singers it must be terrible. 

SK: When you hear Heifetz he’s not always so fast – not that it’s ever slow! – but it is so subtle…

MA: …in the direction of the phrase, the shape. It’s fluent, it’s going somewhere. That’s what interests me.

SK: I recently heard the Horowitz-Toscanini Tchaikovsky recording [of the B flat minor Concerto] and this stupendous moment at the end with the octaves. I hadn’t heard this for 20  years. It was overwhelming but not only because of the speed – because lots of people can play that fast now – it was something you felt he needed. I once met him and one thing he said about octaves was that to play them you must have a Mephistophelian spirit. 

MA: I have good octaves.

SK: You have fantastic octaves. 

MA: I know – but I don’t know if I am Mephistopheles. 

(At this point, Argerich decides she needs a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke indoors, so the scene shifts back out on to the balcony. The talk gets round to the number of young pianists today trying to sustain careers.)

MA: Yes, the young people are playing enormously, all kinds of things all the time, everything you’ve heard of, and they have to learn this and play that and – vooosh! – it’s something incredible. I don’t know what to think about it. You know when we were the age of the young pianists today, we also thought the older generation were better. The difference is that they were [hoots with laughter]!

SK: One thing that was different is that they were different from each other. 

MA: You could tell the difference between violinists even more. 

SK: When you heard Heifetz or Kreisler…

MA: …Milstein, Oistrakh, Menuhin. They were all different.

JN: You don’t think it’s the same with pianists? 

MA: I’m more interested in violinists. I don’t know why – I  have a thing about that! But Stephen, aren’t you disappointed about the sound production of younger pianists? 

SK: Look. Let me give you an example. The opening of Beethoven Four. I do believe I  know the sound I want, I do believe I have the technique to get it, but it’s not guaranteed. 

MA: You have incredible natural sound production anyway.

SK: Well perhaps, dear. But I’ve worked at it. Myra Hess also taught me a lot. But the thing is you have to need that quality of sound. If you have a pianissimo or piano that is rich – that’s the only way I can put it – people come to you. 

MA: And not everybody can do it.

SK: Beethoven Four is the one of the five you’ve never played, Martha, yet it’s the one you love the most. 

MA: I don’t know why I haven’t played it.

SK: I believe you can and will some day. When I  was adolescent I didn’t like Beethoven…I  thought he was an awful composer. I liked Chopin and Scriabin. I loved Chopin’s Mazurkas more than anything on earth. I still do love them almost more than anything.

MA: You don’t like the fact that you were born on 17 October, do you, because that was the day that Chopin died.

SK: Yes, but it’s also Rita Hayworth’s birthday! So that’s some compensation.

MA: My god was Beethoven when I was a little girl. I used to put in every score ‘The god of music – Beethoven’. Bach was the father, but god was Beethoven. But why not [Beethoven] Four? Perhaps because 
it’s wise not to touch what you really love? I  don’t know.

SK: Also you might think that you can’t play it the way you want. 

The pair discuss their discographies and the fact that there are hardly any overlaps in repertoire – almost as though Kovacevich has done one part and Argerich the other. What, they wonder, determines these choices of what you play and what you don’t? Character? Temperament?

SK: Who knows?

MA: I think it’s temperament. I think I have a youthful temperament. Not in life, but when I  play. I think so. 

JN: So you choose repertoire that reflects that? I  mean, Brahms isn’t going to do it for you.

MA: No, he doesn’t. 

SK: Brahms is your weak spot. For me, it’s Haydn.

MA: I like Haydn! Very much.

SK: I know. 

MA: Haydn is wonderful – he’s very youthful and humorous. In life I am not as humorous, for instance, as you Stephen. You have an extraordinary sense of humour. But in music I  like humour. This I  got from [Friedrich] Gulda. I was fascinated by him because of that. He was the first person who talked to me about the possibilities of humour – ‘so-and-so has to be played in an idiotic way’ – that sort of idea. And of course in Haydn and early Beethoven you have a lot of that. Don’t you think?

SK: My problem with Haydn is that I always think he’s like a person making jokes in Latin. 

MA: Beethoven was very influenced by him. 

SK: Yes – early Beethoven – but I never have the feeling that Beethoven is like that. Beethoven is humorous and good-spirited – he’s like a puppy sometimes. 

MA: It’s only in Haydn and Beethoven – and then in the Russians. Because otherwise, after [Haydn and Beethoven] you don’t have
humour in music. In between them, I don’t see it. When Schumann writes ‘with humour’ it’s a different thing. Would you like to hear Shostakovich playing the Quintet? I have it here somewhere but I don’t know how the CD player works.

(The trio listen to the recording, then, at Argerich’s insistence, to Shostakovich’s performance of the last movement of his First Piano Concerto (‘The cadenza is something unbelievable!’) which Kovacevich has never heard. After that, they visit YouTube and watch film of Glenn Gould playing part of the Quintet. Then…)

MA: Would you like to hear Pletnev’s new work? Suite Helvetienne for two pianos and orchestra. 

SK: I’d love to.

MA: I have a recording from the radio. But I  don’t know if you’ll like it.

SK: I don’t know. I’ve never heard it.

MA: I like it very much, but I don’t know what you’ll think of it.

SK: Neither do I. Let’s hear it.

MA: But what if you don’t like it?

SK: I can’t tell till I’ve heard it.

MA: Maybe we’ll hear it another time.

SK: No, I’d like to hear it now. Put it on. 

(After this Ayckbournesque banter, Argerich puts on Pletnev’s amiable, if over-long, work, after which Stephanie Argerich and her baby emerge from their afternoon nap. It’s time for the interview to end and let these two great pianists revert to their roles of adoring grandparents.)

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