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'Close and Cordial'
A look back at the 2023 Martha Argerich Festival

By Gerrit Glaner 

One of the ways you can tell it’s summertime is thanks to the myriad festivals. Many are wonderful — and unique. Do any stand out from the rest? Absolutely. Take the Martha Argerich Festival, which was held in Hamburg for the fifth time; Steinway & Sons has partnered with the festival since its inception.

The most outstanding feature is undoubtedly Martha Argerich herself. She is singular, admired by the public and recognized among her colleagues. For as long as anyone can remember, she has collaborated with the greatest musicians of her time. After all, she is one herself! But does that make her an unapproachable diva? Not at all. Whether on- or off-stage, she is amiable and a generous supporter.


She pays special attention to the younger generation, which always needs support at an early stage. This concern unites Martha Argerich and Steinway: today as then, the mutual close and cordial bond was established at the beginning of her career, when she won two of the most important international piano competitions (Geneva and Busoni) in her teens.

Status, fame, age, and celebrity are not essential criteria for Argerich, but rather words like ‘authenticity’ and ‘devotion.’ That is also what characterizes the passion off the stage. For ten days, the venerable Laeiszhalle runs ’round the clock. With extremely stretched schedules, everyone pulls together: artistic and technical management, hall team from management to stage door, musical direction, catering and, of course, the Steinway team — and namely their concert technicians.

A special feature of this festival is the organizer: an orchestra! The Hamburg Symphony Orchestra has long been warmly associated with Martha Argerich, and adds to the joint opening concert and numerous concerts with its own chamber ensembles and friends whom Martha Argerich has specially invited to join her on stage. And they all come, for her sake. Among them again this year were many Steinway Artists, including Stephen Kovacevich, Elena Bashkirova and Jura Margulis.


The common thread that characterizes the festival and connects all participants is friendship, musical and personal in equal measure. One of Martha Argerich's characteristics is to live out of the moment and make it special. Anyone who has experienced her in concert understands this immediately. Of the times of day, she unquestionably prefers late hours. So it’s no wonder that she still practices in the middle of the night after concerts, especially for projects lasting several days like this one. Here, no touring programs are reeled off, but rather specially composed concerts are performed, rehearsed on location in the Laeiszhalle during the day — and also at night.

Within the stylistic diversity ranging from classical and jazz to traditional Portuguese and Indian music, the piano, no surprise, played the leading role. Argerich was always in the thick of it. For her, too, there were many innovations. Three concerts are highlighted here: In a memorable pianistic summit meeting on two Steinways, she played together for the first time with Daniil Trifonov, then also with his teacher (and her longtime duo partner) Sergei Babayan. Finally, teacher and student celebrated a Rachmaninoff homage.


Not at all new, but probably most moving, was the meeting of Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. The two have known each other for seventy-five years and have played together countless times (including in the first and third Festival at the Laeiszhalle). Barenboim had come especially for this evening despite considerable health problems, and together they let the audience share in their deep human friendship. There were standing ovations for these two legends already during the welcome as well as after the concert — but for some concertgoers there was equally touching silence.


Also in the audience were violinist Gil Shaham and cellist Misha Maisky. Argerich played the final concert with them the following evening, first with each of them individually (Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, respectively) and finally Haydn’s Piano Trio in G Major, Hob. XV:25. The three had rehearsed this and also the encore, the brilliant third movement from Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1, after the concert with Barenboim. At two o'clock the light was still on.

Martha Argerich changed instruments for the finale. In the cone of spotlights on stage, she ended ‘her’ festival with a gong strike — and heralded the planning for the sixth festival in 2024. Steinway will be there again.

Photos: Daniel Menan / Daniel Dittus

Video: Kiran West

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