(Cristiano Siqueira for The Washington Post)

There are a few things everyone in the music world knows, or thinks they know, about Martha Argerich, the Argentine-born pianist who is getting a Kennedy Center Honor on Sunday. She’s private, moody and unpredictable. She’s wildly beautiful, with a long, thick mass of hair — once dark, now gray — and a radiant, quick smile, and at 75, she still wears the peasant blouses and cotton pants of a teenager circa 1968. And she plays the piano brilliantly, ferociously and, perhaps, better than anyone else on Earth. 

Trying to pin her down for an interview seems impossible. She is said to give interviews only rarely, with reluctance. To get her to talk in 2008, Gramophone magazine enlisted the help of the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, one of the three fathers of her three daughters, who has been called the great love of her life, although they broke up for the last time in the 1970s. Even with Kovacevich there, she became physically ill at ease when the tape recorder was switched on. Yet when an interview time is eventually named, and a number dialed, there she is, on the phone from her oldest daughter’s house in Switzerland, speaking in a lilting, girlish voice, sounding warm and natural and utterly unlike a formidable reclusive genius.

Martha Argerich in 1966 at age 25. (Werner Neumeister/Deutsche Grammophon)

But after all, traveling to the States to accept a Kennedy Center Honor isn’t in keeping with her image as someone who has little use for awards, either.

“It was my daughter,” she says. “My daughter insisted very much. And then [the violinist] Itzhak Perlman phoned and told me, ‘You know, it’s a lot of fun.’ And then I looked at some people who had received that, and then, of course, I felt very honored. . . . But I don’t understand, because I think I haven’t done much in America.” 

Not much, that is, apart from appearing with most of the country’s leading orchestras: the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. Other American orchestral appearances included a concerto recording with Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra. 

Not much, apart from a string of concerts, one highlight the sold-out Carnegie Hall recital in 2000 that marked her first solo appearance in the States in nearly 20 years — after she decided, in the early 1980s, to stop performing alone and play only with orchestras and in chamber music. The performance was a benefit to raise money for the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., which she credits with saving her life when she was struck with a life-threatening recurrence of malignant melanoma in 1997. “I was careful to do [the concert] two weeks before my checkup,” she remembers, “because I was afraid — if I do my checkup and it doesn’t go well, how will I play?” (The checkup, happily, was clear.)

And now, the Kennedy Center Honors are upon us, and the greatest pianist in the world, the artist whom other pianists almost universally venerate for her formidable technique and her instinctive musicianship, is “perplexed” about why she’s getting it and, worse yet, doesn’t know what to wear. 

“I am a mess, really,” she says. “I have my concert outfits, and then otherwise — I have no idea.” There is a conspiratorial hint of a laugh in her voice, as if she recognizes the humor in the situation, but she is certainly not joking. “I am very worried about the whole thing.” 

Argerich is a genuine living legend of the classical music world. But she has never particularly tried to cultivate an image as one. Or at least, not in conventional terms.

Argerich, seen here as a young woman, is a genuine living legend of the classical music world. (Llse Buhs/Deutsche Grammophon)
‘A thing for octaves’

The story of Martha Argerich is a story about ferocious natural genius. Argerich cannot help speaking music — internalizing a score and performing it with such depth and range and emotion and risk-taking that even non-aficionados are left agog. She has a photographic memory, able to reproduce music perfectly after a single hearing. Technical challenges pose no problems; “I have a thing for octaves,” she said, laughing, in a 1972 TV interview, of passages like the thunderous close of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, which most pianists find the stuff of anxiety dreams. Schumann’s Toccata is supposed to be among the hardest pieces in the repertory; Argerich, who particularly adores Schumann, used it for years as a warm-up. (“Not anymore,” she says and laughs. “Now, I just start. I don’t warm up.”) Reaching far beyond mere technique is the artistry that underlies each performance, making you feel you are hearing her largely familiar and selective repertory — Bach and Chopin, Prokofiev and Ravel — for the first time. 

Argerich has a photographic memory, able to reproduce music perfectly after a single hearing. (Private Archive/Deutsche Grammophon)

“Only the greatest artists are able to maintain the freshness of discovery with the depth of thoughtfulness,” said Daniel Barenboim, the conductor and pianist, in a recent email from Europe. “Martha Argerich is one of them. From the beginning, she wasn’t a mechanic[al] virtuoso, only concerned with dexterity and speed. She mastered those as well, of course, but her fantasy enabled her to create a very unique quantity and quality of sounds on the piano.”

But Argerich’s is also a story about someone with superhuman gifts trying to find a way to live a normal life. Many musicians live a life of monkish order, focusing on the discipline of music. Argerich, by contrast, has seemed to go out of her way to be disorganized. She’s so given to canceling performances, sometimes at the last minute, that she long ago stopped signing contracts: Presenters who want her have to take the risk. And her personal life has been turbulent. The three daughters by three men are one illustration of a life filled with relationships; over and over, she has established veritable communes of young musicians and non-musicians who have wandered into her large, chaotic houses. 

At the same time, she is fiercely loyal: Two of those three fathers, Kovacevich and the conductor Charles Dutoit, remain close friends. As do the pianist Nelson Freire, the cellist Mischa Maisky and the violinist Gidon Kremer — her two steadiest chamber music partners, with whom she has toured and recorded for decades — and Barenboim, who has known her since they were both child prodigies in Argentina, seven decades ago. 

“There is nobody today that I have known as long as Martha,” Barenboim said. “Our relationship is based on music, of course, but there is also a very human love that connects us.”

Argerich’s lifestyle choices stem partly from temperament. She seems to naturally like sleeping until 2 in the afternoon, spending hours talking on the phone or watching TV or surrounded by friends, and practicing the piano, if at all, in the wee hours of the morning. In a startlingly revealing film documentary, “Bloody Daughter” (2012), her youngest daughter, Stéphanie Argerich (Kovacevich’s daughter), unsparingly and affectionately displays the ups and downs of living with a legend: the children falling asleep under the piano; dance parties in front of the television; the mother’s attitude sometimes childlike, sometimes cavalier, especially when it came to things like getting the children to school. (Her middle daughter, Annie Dutoit, says on camera that attending school was, in their household, something of a rebellion — and their only exposure to rules and order.) 

Argerich’s life choices have come under fire from many — her domineering late mother, Juanita, very much included. But those choices are also partly about self-preservation: concrete evidence of a lifelong rebellion against the increasing regimentation and restriction of a life in music. 

“I don’t know why [orchestras] need to be so sure what is going to happen in two, three years,” she says. “Sometimes people are asking about what you are doing in 2019. Jacques [Thelen, Argerich’s manager] will say, ‘She doesn’t even know what she is going to do next month. . . .’ It’s ridiculous, and not normal.” 

Pianist Martha Argerich. (Werner Neumeister/Deutsche Grammophon)
Talent was apparent early

Not much was normal about Argerich’s life. As a child in Buenos Aires, she showed musical talent early and, pushed by her mother and home-schooled by her father, studied intensely with a formidable Italian-born pedagogue named Vincenzo Scaramuzza (who once said that Argerich may have been 6, but her soul was 40). 

One of her lasting childhood memories is of hearing Claudio Arrau playing the Beethoven 4th piano concerto, jolting through her body like electricity. “I still do” love Beethoven, she says now. “That’s a long-lasting love. I mean, I love him more than anything” — more, even, than Prokofiev and Ravel, whom she consistently refers to as her “best friends,” or Schumann, “who touches me, so personally. When I play some phrases, I really have tears.” But Beethoven remains at the top of the list. You might think this would make her a Beethoven specialist; but she has not performed many of the 32 sonatas, though they are staples of the piano repertory. As for the 4th concerto, she loves it so much that — counter to what one might expect — she has never played it in public.

Argerich onstage at a performance. (Priska Ketterer/Deutsche Grammophon)

Or is that the reason? “That’s what I tell myself,” she says. “I have told that many years ago, and I keep repeating it. Now, it is valid.” And she cackles with amusement. 

Juanita, her mother, made sure her daughter was introduced to every musician who came to town: the violinist Josef Szigeti, the pianist Walter Gieseking and their ilk. But it was Friedrich Gulda, the unconventional and brilliant Austrian pianist only 11 years her senior, who riveted Argerich most. To make it possible for her to study with him, Juan Perón, then the president of Argentina, got her parents jobs in the country’s embassy in Vienna, and the family, including Argerich’s younger brother, Juan Manuel, moved when Martha was 13. Gulda, whose own lifelong quest to avoid being pigeonholed in a classical music career involved immersing himself in jazz, treated their relationship more as a meeting of brilliant musical minds than as a traditional pedagogical hierarchy. He was unimpressed with Argerich’s subsequent fame and the personal chaos that surrounded her. When he met her years later, according to a 2010 biography of Argerich by the French journalist Olivier Bellamy, he cried, “What have you done with your life?”

Though Argerich always cites Gulda as a major influence, she studied with him for only 18 months. Her career started with a bang in 1957 when, at 16, she won two major piano competitions — the Busoni in Italy and the Geneva International competition — back to back within a few weeks. There followed a steady string of concerts and critical accolades in a traveling life for which she, young and shy, felt ill-prepared. She resisted recording her first album for Deutsche Grammophon for some time, though the label took the unprecedented step of giving her a monthly stipend against future earnings; she finally recorded it in 1960. Including a rippling, fluid performance of Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” and a breathtaking rendition of Liszt’s 6th Hungarian Rhapsody that channels something of that virtuosic composer, as well as two rhapsodies by Brahms, who is not in her personal pantheon, the recording remains a classic. 

And then, Argerich broke off her career. After an abortive attempt to study with the legendary Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who gave her only four lessons in the space of a year and a half, she went to New York, hoping but failing to meet her idol Vladimir Horowitz and, ultimately, falling into a depression and thinking of leaving music altogether. She got pregnant by a friend, the composer-conductor Robert Chen; married him; then returned to her domineering mother in Geneva, where her oldest daughter, Lyda, was born in 1964. With the help of the pianist and teacher Stefan Askenase, she focused anew on her music and resoundingly won the Chopin competition in 1965, showing an instinctive understanding of the nuances and strengths of that master, and putting her back on the map for good. 

Argentinian pianist Argerich performs during a rehearsal session at the Philharmonie in Berlin on September 2013. (Soeren Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

Her personal life remained rocky. She lost custody of Lyda to Chen, now her ex-husband, some months later, and saw her only once or twice until she was a teenager. Lyda is, improbably, now close to her mother and sisters, and mother to two of Argerich’s six grandchildren, one of whom played with his grandmother at her festival in Lugano this past summer. “He plays the piano actually very well,” Argerich says. “We played four hands this year.” And, in response to a question, “How old are you?” she calls from the telephone, and the child’s voice answers, in the background, “Huit ans et demi” (8½). 

Argerich always plays with other people now; she never enjoyed the loneliness of appearing solo on a concert stage, and around 1981 simply decided not to do it anymore. Solo or accompanied, she strides out on stage like someone in a tremendous hurry and plunges right into the music, often leaping up as soon as she has finished. It has often been said of her that she plays like a man, which is supposed to be a description of her strength and power, but which understandably nettles her. “When I went to study with Gulda, he said I was like a hermaphrodite,” she says wryly. “Once they asked Gidon Kremer, ‘Oh, aren’t you a little worried to play with Martha, because she plays with hands like a man?’ He said, ‘No, because my heart is like a woman.’ ” 

Today, Argerich has two festivals of her own — in Lugano and in Beppu, Japan. Her artistic collaborations continue to lead her in new directions — this summer, she played with the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Recovered from cancer, plunged back into the thick of her life, Argerich is kept so busy that, she says, “I don’t have much time to think about what I really want to do.”

“It’s a very strange time,” she muses. “Aging is very strange. It’s as if one has had so many different lives already. I think I need a little bit more time to understand, to feel what I really want to do. Over the time that’s left.”

The 39th Kennedy Center Honors ceremony will be held Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Opera House. The taped presentation will be broadcast Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. on CBS.