Pogorelich plays Chopin in Istanbul

Chopin, Liszt : Ivo Pogorelich “Virtuoso Recitals” at İş Sanat Auditorium, Istanbul 12.05.2011 (AM)
Chopin : Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35; Nocturne in C minor, op. 48 no.1
Liszt : Mephisto Waltz No.1, Sonata in B minor, S. 178

I wish Arcadi Volodos all the best and a very swift recovery, but it was by the grace of his illness that Istanbul’s Is Sanat got to host the great Ivo Pogorelich as his surrogate. As much as I would have liked to attend Volodos’ unrealized program (of Schubert’s Six Moments Musicaux and F major Sonata, and the Liszt Sonata), Ivo Pogorelich has long been at the top of the list of pianists I wanted to see live.

Not everyone seemed to agree, however, since there were more than a few empty seats in the relatively small auditorium. The sad part is, I know at least a few people who wanted to be there but couldn’t as the organizers duly expected a complete show-up for the sold-out original event. So, if you are one of the Volodos ticket holders who decided to skip the evening because of the switch, know this: you missed a superlative evening of highly (but aptly) individualized Chopin, not to mention a Liszt-ian experience that is akin to a David Lynch viewing: you don’t necessarily understand everything that is going on in front of you, but you are continually at the edge of your seat, just grateful that you’ve been taken along for the ride.

As the lights dimmed to reflect a soft beam on the Steinway on the stage, Pogorelich, together with his young page-turner, arrived in classic black tails. He bowed and smiled humbly towards us and sat at the piano. I must admit the evening was quite a different setting than that of the Ivo Pogorelich recital evoked in me by the countless reviews that I’ve come across over the last few years: a pitch dark hall except for a single bright spot shining on the pianist who appears on stage without acknowledging the audience, plays like an unrelenting demigod, then turns around and leaves. Throughout the evening, Mr. Pogorelich was kind and gracious; he appreciated the admiring audience at every opportunity. Not that all that really matters as long as the music is good, but I was still pleased to know that when the evening was over, Ivo Pogorelich would not give us anything extracurricular to talk about.

If there’s one sonata that can use an invigorated construal it is the evening’s opener, Chopin’s 2nd sonata (and I’m using ‘construal’ with the full awareness of what it implies.) Easily one of the most widely recorded and performed piano sonatas, this marvellous piece has been played in every imaginable way: fast and slow, loud and hushed, introverted and assertive. What Mr. Pogorelich did with this piece, however, went somewhat beyond those interpretive adjectives. Both the Grave and the Scherzo were treated not only as movements of a sonata, but almost as separate sonatas within themselves. Mr. Pogorelich’s changes of tempi and dynamics (sometimes sudden, sometimes subtle), created an illusion of an allegro-adagio-allegro structured sonata in each movement. Although all the notes were there, the way they were exposed was nothing short of radical. It wasn’t the purist’s Chopin of choice for sure, but Mr. Pogorelich’s performance was so convincing and estranging at the same time that while I was aware of the material that was being presented, it felt as much as a debut as a seasoned piece. The pursuant Funeral March was played at a speed near the slow and loud end of the performance spectrum. The pianist, as opposed to most performers, did not offer any solace in the D-flat theme, keeping the sombre air throughout the movement. A special mention has to go to Mr. Pogorelich’s left hand bass trills in the main theme: the notes were so even and slightly overlapping with a little push of the pedal that I could literally feel the vibration in my chest every time it arrived. The finale was a classic showcase of how, whenever he chose to do so, Pogorelich can still play like a thunder.

The 1st Mephisto Waltz has been Pogorelich’s signature piece of late. Within Liszt’s framework, we know it is Faust who is doing the dancing in the company of none other than the devil, so the dance is bound to be deliriously fast and, well, demonic. In Pogorelich’s version this evening, it was slowed down so that even we, the mortals, could boogie. His slower passages took the program music out of its context a little bit, as it emphasized the impending tragedy for Faust. Mr. Pogorelich’s reading of the music must have puzzled the page-turner, too as she stood up near the end of a page, but the pianist stopped her. He still had unfinished work with that one phrase on which he worked for an additional minute or so. When the music started to pick up pace again, Mr. Pogorelich went on the offensive and gave the audience an inexorable five minutes of petrifying performance that was unquestionably more than what Liszt had bargained for. Overall, once again, the pianist deconstructed the music in front of him to create four distinctive separate movements out of a whole. Yes, it was unorthodox, and yes, it was exhausting but it was compelling. Just remember the golden rule: To be performed by seasoned professionals only, do not even try to do this at home.

Next up was the holiest of holies for music lovers: a Chopin nocturne, something that is definitely not to be tampered with. Ivo Pogorelich’s performance of the E-major nocturne has been met with more criticism over the last few years than anything he has done. Now, he was going to try his hand at the majestic op. 48 in c minor. The only impulsive performance of this piece that I had heard was from Gavrilov in a live performance in which he flinches back and forth in the opening, but settles to semi-conformism once the march comes in. Naturally, I knew Pogorelich was going to topple that performance, but I was curious as to how far he would choose to go. Ivo Pogorelich’s lento chords were taken at almost half the speed. He kept both the left and the right hand side of the conversation muted without letting any emotion out in the open. In fact, he didn’t turn up the volume knob until the reprise of the initial theme. The sudden contrast that came without any consideration for the build up which, I feel is essential for an effective performance left me wanting a little more. I do not necessarily expect beauty from Ivo Pogorelich’s piano, but I definitely expect effectiveness. I would say his nocturne lacked that special jolt, and consequently was the only weak link of the evening.

With the evening moving along a performance scale from an 8 for the sonata to a 9 for the waltz and then to perhaps a 6.5 for the nocturne, the Liszt sonata that followed ended the evening at a solid 10. Occupying a good forty minutes or so of the second half, Pogorelich’s suspenseful, eerie and at some points spine-chilling performance was the best part of an already outstanding evening. The pianist emphasized the sinister tone of the music in each of the three main themes by applying a healthy dose of loud open bass notes and chords, letting them run in their entirety even when his right hand had already moved on to the next melody. With the chords from the previous section echoing in the background, the music was kept in a coherent whole even when the speed was down to a standstill. I could easily discern the audience’s discomfort during the lengthy, uneasy andante. Every time there was a pause (and under Pogorelich’s hands there were many), the crowd shifted anxiously (which may be interpreted as their absorption in the atmosphere spawned by the music, as well as their longing for the evening to end). We were thrown back and forth between lethargy and state of full alert, thanks to Pogorelich’s unpredictable cycles of sudden bursts of bravura and stretched idyllic chords. The sonata, and the evening, ended on a mixture of the two: a tranquil chord played raucously. As was to be expected, there were no encores.

I remember reading somewhere that Ivo Pogorelich once said: “You may not like my Chopin, but you will remember it.” ‘Like’ is such a misused word sometimes.

Alain Matalon