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Ah, So Pure!

Who is she?” my daughter, Linnea, asks me.

“Martha Argerich. She’s a brilliant pianist. She plays with all this passion, this brio, this verve.”

I never use words like “brio” and “verve.”

Linnea is looking at me with one raised eyebrow—a trick I myself had to practice to master, but which she has done effortlessly since she was about four.

“Look, let me YouTube her and you can see for yourself. Just the first three minutes. After that, you know, go do what you want to do.”

Possibly out of sense that it is good to encourage parents to do things online, Linnea indulges me, nodding at the screen.

So I Google “Prokofiev Concerto No. 1, Martha Argerich.”

“I’ve heard her play before, of course,” I explain, “On the radio. On recordings. I’d just never seen her.”

Linnea nods again.

But then the video begins, with the crazed-looking conductor—Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky—wiping his brow as if he’d already run a race. Meanwhile, Ms. Argerich sits at her piano, half-wild, half-tamed. She purses her lips, points at either the conductor or the concertmaster. And then she turns her head and smiles—maybe at the audience, definitely not at me.

But what the hell. Because even before the driving three-chord opening of Prokofiev’s first piano concerto, I’m hooked.

Then the strings open it up and the piano, Martha at the helm, follows masterfully.

The first time I heard the Prokofiev piano concerto—which he wrote as a conservatory student and is probably an immature work and all of that and I’m probably a novice listener for loving it so much—I was in the car and I immediately drove to the closest store and bought a copy. (And just to set things straight: I like my recording, with Kurt Masur conducting and Michel Beroff at the piano. Beroff’s no slouch, you know? But he’s not Martha.)

“Look,” I point out to Linnea, “how she looks at the orchestra!

Linnea, who actually played an instrument in high school while I was all about ballet class and self-abasement, looks at me. “Why shouldn’t she look up?” she seems to be saying.

But I’m not paying much attention. Because now the orchestra has taken back the theme and the conductor, actually wearing a hair comb of some sort and looking particularly anguished, is thrashing the air and squinting.

Then Martha’s back in before halfway into the second minute, chasing up and down the keys with chipmunk speed, pursing her lips, looking gorgeous, driving home Prokofiev’s hormone-driven missive, which is a kind of thanks-be-to-God for the life force—though what do I really know about either music or adolescent male composers?

Martha holds her own, unsurprisingly, cocking her head this way and that as the music expands into a jaunting, urbane gallop, not what you’d expect of a Russian composer on the cusp of the Soviet era. But what did Prokofiev know of politics at that point? It was music and music was about logic and a little logical madness.

So she rides us through that and then the pace quickens. It’s rush hour and now all we see are her hands. And what hands! Fingers like race horses’ legs—OK, I did not just actually say that. But they are like that in a way: a blur. Then the camera cuts to her face, the hair bobbing around her head, her lips pursing again, moving, as if speaking without words.

Who needs words at this point, anyway?

But now the piano stops abruptly. Martha looks up, wipes the hair out of her face. The conductor, still looking weary, suffers the orchestra to come unto him as they begin a kind of dirge. The piano eventually joins in and for a moment or so everything is quiet until, irrepressibly, the piano begins to build again, like a mountain man on the Tour de France pulling ahead with slow, but implacable confidence that he can out-distance the drag of the pellotin.

And so Martha goes, as the score half-bullies, half-charms the orchestra into a restatement of the first, driving theme. Rabinovitch-Barakovsky, more fraught than ever, waves his arms around, urging the orchestra to catch up. Or that’s how it seems. Until the strings come in and the camera pulls back and we see Martha, her hair and face reflecting the bold sonority of what she’s playing. And then . . .

And then, the movement ends.

She looks up, pushes her hair back, exhales.

The video ends, too.

I am entranced. But I am not sated.

“That’s just the first movement,” I say breathlessly to Linnea, as if I’ve been in any way involved in the performance.

And Linnea, who has stayed not for just the first three minutes, but for the full seven, turns to me and says, “I really liked it. I really did.”

Score, I think. I’ve raised up my kid on classical music. I used to queue the Chopin Nocturnes to help her get to sleep. We’ve sat through live cannon fire during the 1812 Overture. She gets the Phillip Glass joke. The Phillip Glass joke. The Phillip Glass joke.

“But also, Mama,” she adds, “I think you’ve got a serious girl crush on—on? What’s her name?”

“Martha Argerich,” I say, involuntarily practicing my lip-pursing. And knowing that, without a doubt, she is right.

—Jo Page

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