On hearing the greatest pianist in the world twice in one week

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Martha Argerich performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and conductor Antonio Pappano at the Kennedy Center on October 25 (Photo by Jati Lindsay.)

Piano fans trade accounts of Martha Argerich’s legendary cancellations like grizzled vets swap war stories. One couple from Cleveland I met this week planned an entire vacation to London around an Argerich concert a few years ago–only to arrive in England and be devastated by one of the mercurial Argentine’s last-minute withdrawals. I myself had Argerich cancel on me fifteen years ago in Boston and have not had the chance to hear her play since–that is, until last week, when I unexpectedly found myself booking a flight from Washington to Cleveland to hear arguably the greatest pianist on the planet for the second time in the span of six days.

Argerich’s tour date in Washington on October 25, with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and conductor Antonio Pappano (a joint Kennedy Center-Washington Performing Arts presentation), had long been circled on my calendar, and Argerich did not disappoint–in any sense of the word. Long into the night and well into the next day, Argerich’s bracing, ecstatic, and magisterial account of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto was still ringing in my ears.

I have cherished Argerich’s legendary recordings–explosive, tempestuous, technically and musically stunning–for decades. But I discovered to my amazement that there’s a special quality to her playing that only comes through live. Her complete mastery of her instrument gives her the freedom to fully inhabit the space of live performance in a way I’ve never encountered before: to truly be in the moment, to be preternaturally attuned to her collaborators, and to express herself in what sounds like a spontaneous outpouring of musical inspiration.

The Prokofiev was a breathtaking tour-de-force: 27 minutes of intensely concentrated astonishment. The wealth of colors emanating from Argerich’s piano was stunning, like hearing two great orchestras on stage at once. And never before have I heard the piano’s upper register played with such brilliance and clarity, yet also depth and presence of sound, as in the Prokofiev’s electrifying finale.

The next morning, the concert lingered in my mind with all the power of a febrile dream. After a performance of such life-altering force, I had to hear her again, and soon. But when, and how?

I quickly found myself scouring Argerich’s all-too-infrequent tour dates and desperately searching flight times and hotel availabilities–and ended up booking a trip to Cleveland for four days later, while keeping my fingers crossed that she’d keep the engagement. Sure, Argerich would be playing again in Washington next year, with the venerable Itzhak Perlman. But I couldn’t wait that long, and here was my chance to hear her in a duo concert with another of my favorite pianists, Sergei Babayan, presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition. I had heard Babayan perform recently at a Phillips Collection concert at the Cosmos Club in D.C. and came away impressed by his musical intelligence and his rare command of an eclectic repertory, from Bach and Chopin to Vladmir Ryabov and Arvo Pärt. He seemed like he’d be an ideal partner.

If the Kennedy Center performance had the air of a rock concert, the capacity crowd at Severance Hall proved a bit more mellow (no one asked for an autograph at the curtain call), if no less worshipful and appreciative. In a program featuring Prokofiev transcriptions for two pianos (arranged by Babayan) and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448, these two titans of the piano offered over two hours of unforgettable music making. This was ensemble playing without a safety net–there was never the slightest hint of caution or calculation in the performances, just free-flowing, confident, and joyous collaboration between two masters.

The highlight of the evening for me was the rich orchestral palette of Babayan’s transcription of twelve movements from Romeo and Juliet (with Argerich taking the secondo part), from the dark demonic drive of “Montagues and Capulets” to the bittersweet tenderness of “Romeo and Juliet Before Departure.” The “Aubade,” with its delicate and exquisitely poised dialogue between the two pianos, may be the most beautiful two-and-a-half minutes of music I’ve ever heard live. (In comparison, Prokofiev’s original version for mandolins and orchestra now sounds cloying.) Each movement was so full of color and individual character, and so shot through with balletic energy and an unmistakeable sense of dance.

The rapport between the two pianists through the evening felt so intuitive and natural, whether in the witty, elegant, and romantically tinged Mozart Sonata or the closing Prokofiev group (riveting transciptions from Hamlet, Eugene Onegin, and The Queen of Spades, with Argerich playing the primo part). While musical finesse, rather than sheer virtuosic display, was the order of the evening, audience members expecting the two masters to turn their pianos upside down would not have been disappointed with the carnage of the “Idée Fixe” movement from The Queen of Spades.

No one seemed to want to this magical evening to end, maybe least of all the two pianists themselves, who gifted the audience with not one but two generous encores: the Barcarole from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 and the Waltz from his Suite No. 2.

While flying back to D.C. the next day, I couldn’t help but wonder: after Martha Argerich departs from the stage, shall we ever look upon her like again?