How to Turn Chopin into a Rag Doll: A Piano Lesson from Ivo Pogorelich

ItalyItaly Chopin: Ivo Pogorelich (piano), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome 4.11.2011 (JB)

Nocturne Op.55 no.2 in B flat
Sonata Op.35 no.2 in B flat minor
Nocturne Op.62 no.2 in E
Sonata Op.58 no.3 in B minor

It wasn’t a recital. More of a lesson, really. A perverse one to be sure. But that is Ivo the divo as we know him, admirers and detractors alike. Having been enthusiastically in the first group, on this occasion I found myself catapulted into the second. We all know that every Pogorelich performance is a re-thinking of the music. And a prolonged round of applause to that. But this was a massacre. The kind of criminal mess that ought to be punishable by law. And I promise that I am not normally a reactionary.

Just after the War there was a bizarre question on the Visitors’ Visa Application Form for the USA which asked, Do you suffer from sexual perversions? To which Gilbert Harding is said to have replied, No, I enjoy them. Perverse as Pogorelich’s approach is, he doesn’t sound as though he is enjoying it. He delivers with an almost fanatical insistence. But there is no evidence of an underlying conviction. Sadism and masochism come to mind. It seems that he is hell-bent on punishing his audience as well as himself.

All told, this is a pretty frightening experience and more so perhaps for former admirers like me: I go along with Martha Argerich, who rightly used the word genius for the young Pogorelich. But this present performance was full of loose ends, like a rag doll with big staring button eyes whose very artifice is chillingly emphasised.

By his own admission, Ivo Pogorelich was created by the Georgian teacher and pianist, Aliza Kezeradze, whom he began studying with in Moscow in 1976, then married in 1980 (the same year Argerich left the jury of the International Chopin Competition in protest at the boy not being admitted to the final round). He was with Aliza Kezeradze until her death from liver cancer in 1996.

He says that he tries to remain faithful to the four important principles of piano performance as expounded by Madame Kezeradze. So let’s take them one at a time and see how the pupil measures up.

The first is technical perfection as something natural. And it is a pleasure to report that this is still strongly in evidence. The distinguished American composer Alvin Curran was in the audience and hearing the pianist for the first time. At the interval, he refused to become involved in my protestations about the absence of any regard for Chopin. He (Curran) said he was immensely enjoying some of the most amazing pianism he had ever heard. Very glad that he had come, he said. To my own ear, the technique was indeed so perfect as to be natural, but it was determinedly in the service of a high-speed express to hell. All very disturbing.

Here is the second dictum of Kezeradze as quoted by Pogorelich in an interview: an insight into the development of the piano sound, as perfected by the pianist-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, composers who understood the piano both as a human voice … and as an orchestra with which they could produce a variety of colours. That is a bit of a mouthful, as well as irritatingly open to as many interpretations as those who read it. Kezeradze had been a pupil of Siloti, who had been a pupil of Liszt, so that Pogorelich can claim to be a pupil of Liszt at two removed. Well, I myself was a pupil of Henry Geehl, who was a pupil of Leschetitzky, who was a pupil of Liszt, so I, too, am at two removed. However, I promise you that you wouldn’t believe me if you heard me play. In a word, pedigree can have little meaning. Nonetheless, I am hugely grateful for all I learned from Mr Geehl’s lessons.

As for producing from the piano as many sound colours as the orchestra or a human voice, Pogorelich scores badly. While Aliza was alive, there was an immense spectrum of sound colours coming from him. Now he has an obsession of alternating his playing between very quiet and very loud with nothing much in the middle. These dynamics quickly become tiring on the ear. The very loud is deafening; the very quiet is enfeebled. Pogorelich should listen to the young Italian pianist Emanuele Rimoldi, who has made a speciality of the richness of the various soft piano sounds. The divo used to produce these sounds himself when younger, but as with much else which was impressive, this seems to have disappeared from his playing.

The third (as quoted by Pogorelich) is the need to learn how to use every aspect of our new instruments, which are richer in sound. Yes, indeed, the modern piano is capable of sounds which were not available to its forerunners. But Ivo seems to have forgotten on how to draw upon them. Another of his favoured extremes is to take everything either painfully slowly or breathtakingly fast. His slow playing is so exaggerated that it is impossible to for him to arrive at the end of a phrase before the sound dies. The modern piano is equipped with devices for overcoming this problem. But Ivo seems to have forgotten what they are. Phrase after phrase was dying on him.

In the interview quoted in Wikipedia he remembers the fourth requirement as the importance of differentiation. As I have already indicated, this advice was present almost to the exclusion of the others. Differentiation in extremes can be as destructive as creative. I am quite sure that Aliza Kezeradze had the latter in mind. Someone should remind her pupil of this.

The Sala Santa Cecilia at Rome’s Parco della Musica has two thousand eight hundred seats. Most of them were occupied. But many of the occupants were disappointed. The applause was often tepid, obligatory rather than spontaneous. I think the divo picked up on this. At least he spared us an encore.

Jack Buckley