A 5000-Mile Trek to Hear Perhaps the World’s Greatest Pianist


The Martha Argerich Festival is what brought me to Hamburg this summer. The full run is 10 days, and I came for the final six. Argerich, 82, is apart from her reputation as perhaps the greatest living pianist, also famous for last-minute cancellations, a risk for those who travel distances to hear her. 

But not this time. She comes to every performance every evening whether she is performing or not. And so I have been introduced to two new venues (for me) both in the same building called the Leiszehallen. Der Grosse (the big one), and der Kleine, a small hall with 600 seats that is encased entirely in wood and is an acoustical wonder.

The larger 2000-seat hall with its traditional rectangle and high ceiling (partly glass) is no slouch, a neo-Baroque palace. The billion-dollar 2,100-seat Elbphilharmonie, opened in 2017, has been touted as one of the finest of a wave of new concert halls that have opened worldwide in the past decade.

To my ears, the Hamburg Symphony performances during the Argerich Festival underlines the fact that this is not an orchestra that reaches the standards of the storied orchestras of Berlin and Munich. The Hamburg State Opera, however, more than holds its own with a tradition back to its founding in the 17th Century.

It’s churlish to compare German cities based on their musical culture. The list of composers, performers in any era you choose underlines the fact that musical culture is a fundamental part of German life. The audiences this week have been living proof with a mix of young, middle aged and old at every performance.

A 40,000-strong student body at Hamburg University next door to the Laeiszhalle provided some of the performers for the Argerich Festival. The mix of tributes to Argerich have been impressive. Half of one program included a Fado group in a performance that had Argerich cheering from her balcony seat. Clearly a fan, she then joined the troupe onstage to more tumultuous applause.

Hamburg’s port has a history going back centuries. Despite being nearly 110 kilometers (68 miles) from the North Sea Hamburg is generally 3rd  among the three largest container ports in Europe with Rotterdam and Antwerp ahead. Shipping has defined much of the city and still does. But the Elbe does a good job of separating the city from the Port.

The mansions along stretches of the city’s canals are a reminder of the wealth shipping brought to Hamburg. The city’s multiple waterways boast 2500 bridges, more than Amsterdam, Venice and Berlin combined. The great port city of New York has only 789 bridges.

As a concert-goer by night, and daytime traveler via hop-on, hop-off bus and canal boat this musical treat has a welcome pace. The days have been characteristic of the city not far from the sea. An almost constant wind that is a joy for the sailors on the Alster lakes where power boats are not allowed. On Wednesday the sailors were out along with kayakers, paddle boats, single, double, quad and eight boats that underline the German health culture.

Days begin clear but fast forming and scurrying clouds are quick to follow along with almost guaranteed downpours. The North Sea dictates and there are no mountains to get in the way of wind and weather.

The final two concerts were a mixture of both the vicissitudes and serendipities of age. The next-to-last evening was headlined “Barenboim, Carte Blanche,” drawn from Barenboim’s rich repertoire. The added bonus was the promise of Barenboim and Argerich, who grew up together in Argentina and have remained lifelong close friends, performing four hand piano works as they often have.

Reality forced a change. Eight months ago, Daniel Barenboim canceled several of his scheduled commitments, a rare and move for a musician who has been a dynamo as a conductor, a pianist and as a political activist who founded, along with the late Palestinian historian Edward Said, the East-West Divan Orchestra composed of Palestinian, Arabic and Israeli musicians. Barenboim had planned a series of musical celebrations for his 80th including a new cycle of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Berlin State Opera that was seven years in the making.

He was also to take the Opera orchestra he has led for 30 years on tour in Asia. And on his birthday, Nov 15 he planned to perform works by Chopin and Beethoven in Berlin. Then came the cancellations and finally an announcement on social media: “My health has deteriorated over the last months, and I have been diagnosed with a serious neurological condition. I must now focus on my physical wellbeing as much as possible.”

But the Argerich/Barenboim friendship and musical partnership was not cancelled. The crowd of 2000 who came to the grosser (large) Leiszehalle  for the next-to-last concert of the Festival were on their feet clapping and cheering before the duo even set foot on the stage.

As they appeared the applause grew, whistles and cheers were added as Argerich supported Barenboim who moved slowly and stiffly toward the single Steinway that awaited the pair. There was no “carte blanche” from Barenboim’s repertoire. Instead the pair dipped into Mozart and Schubert four hand works that were lifelong signatures of their frequent pairing around the world. 

Barenboim was determined, but also struggled. If you know the dexterity and power of his piano performances, this was not the Barenboim of even a year and a half ago, but it was a loving and collegial performance. At intermission the audience was again standing and cheering and applauding; not particularly helpful to a Barenboim who shuffled more than walked and acknowledged the accolades standing as he seemed unable to bow.

Argerich bowed deeply, the joy of the occasion showing on her face. At the end of the concert, repeat ovations. Despite the effort of more than 90 minutes, they played a Schubert encore. At the end, while the crowd continued their cheering, the stage crew came out to signal finis. They closed the Steinway concert grand and move it to the side of the stage. It was an evening of musical humanity, friendship, and yes, pain.

There was also irony. Despite the fearsome diagnosis of a neurological disorder for a pianist/conductor, Barenboim has said his doctors are optimistic for a full recovery. Barenboim’s first wife, the cellist Jacqueline Du Pres was not so lucky. In her 30s she was struck by multiple sclerosis. Her cello days ended in a wheelchair and she died at age 42.

The final night of the Festival was a return to the richness of the annual offering. Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich at the hands of violinist Gil Shahan, cellist Mischa Maisky, and the ever-present “accompanist” Martha Argerich. Shahan is one of the world’s best violinists with a busy concert schedule to match. That brought him to Hamburg the evening before the final performance. The three instrumentalists rehearsed the night before the final concert until 2:00 am. Had Shahan not taken pride to announce the rehearsal schedule from the stage, you wouldn’t have known. The virtuosity was on full display.

European audiences are not noted for standing ovations but gave forth enthusiastically.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. For those of us who are not close followers of European (“classical”) music festivals, this was a revelation. Sorry to hear of Barenboim’s fragility, but your descriptions of the concert halls and scenic canals in Hamburg inspire desire to experience the city for myself. And you included a bit of musical history for us as well; I had forgotten that it was Daniel who had married Jacqueline Du Pres. Thanks for an enjoyable moment to imagine the music.


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