Ivo Pogorelich: Truly a Law Unto Himself

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Brahms: Ivo Pogorelich (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.2.2015 (MB)

LisztAnnées de pèlerinage: Deuxième année, S 161: ‘Après une lecture de Dante’
SchumannFantasie in C major, op.17
StravinskyThree Movements from ‘Petrushka’
BrahmsVariations on a Theme by Paganini, op.35


There are ‘controversial’ pianists, and then there is Ivo Pogorelich. Neither love nor money would have me part with his recordings of Gaspard de la nuit and Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata. However, my two experiences of him as a concert pianist, at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival, and now tonight, have gone some way beyond the merely eccentric; indeed, I am not quite sure I have the vocabulary to describe them. Nevertheless, try I must.

 Liszt’s Dante Sonata opened the programme, its opening – ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ – declamatory, although almost metallic in tone. (Throughout the first half in particular, I felt there was something distinctly odd about the regulation of the piano, but maybe it was just Pogorelich’s ‘way’ with it.) There was little in the way of beauty of sound – with Liszt, I always have in the back of my mind Tovey’s observation that here was clearly a man who could not fail but make a beautiful sound whenever he touched the piano – but somehow there seemed to be a sense of truthfulness. Once past the introductory material, Pogorelich’s performance initially seemed subdued, but volume and tempo increased. Then came the great slowing: nothing wrong with that in principle, of course, and it needs to happen. But to something quite so glacial? Phrases, let alone paragraphs, were so distended – a word, I am afraid, which persistently came to my mind throughout the recital – that they stood on or beyond the brink of losing all meaning. Exacerbating a tendency already present, the performance became weirdly fragmentary. Moreover, picking up of tempo did not, sadly, equate to any (re-)gaining of coherence. At least, that is, until, apparently out of nowhere, Mephisto seemed, uninvited, to join us, presaging his final waltz. But where had he come from? Perhaps more to the point, where did he then go? Some of the playing that ensued was, for a brief time, diabolically virtuosic, yet also brutal to the point of charmlessness. I was captivated, somehow, or should that have been ‘captive’?

 If the Liszt work had its problems, that was nothing, however, compared to Pogorelich’s performance of Schumann’s C major Fantasie. Never have I heard Schumann sound so – unlike Schumann. Indeed, there were times when, had I not known the work to which the performance was distantly related, I might have guessed the composer to have been one of those cultish nineteenth-century eccentrics such as Alkan. From the outset of the first movement, the thin, bright sound of the instrument seemed less suited still than it had to Liszt. Indeed, oddly, the music often sounded more akin to Liszt than it ever did to Schumann. I longed for something deeper, mellower: ideally a Bösendorfer. And yet, when Pogorelich occasionally yielded, there were proto-Brahmsian half-lights to be experienced, that experience alas proving to be of frustrating brevity. More seriously still, form seemed as elusive as compositional ‘voice’. The torpor into which the movement descended was beyond all other things straightforwardly perverse. When it came to the second movement, the jubilation with which it opened sounded briefly closer to Schumann, although the now-inevitable distortions would soon undo that good, or at least comprehensible, work. At one point, the performance sounded as if it were about to metamorphose into an account of the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’, before Schumann briefly reappeared, only to be replaced with someone closer to Liszt, both in sonority and rhetoric. And so it went on. There was greater yielding in the third movement, but as music, it utterly baffled me. I have little idea about the time on the clock, but it seemed interminable, quite devoid of direction. It unsettled – but not in any way I could begin to consider ‘right’.

 With Stravinsky’s Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’ the recital reached its nadir. The ‘Russian Dance’ was bizarrely slow, but also oppressively heavy: rather like a piano transcription of what someone who has never really listened to Klemperer might think one of his more extreme performances to have sounded like. Except, of course, without the sense of form, or line, or indeed of anything else. Oh for Pollini here! The second movement eventually reached something beyond rehearsal speed, only to lose it soon after. Odd snatches of surprisingly Ravel-like sonority were interspersed with Petrushka on a distant ‘Bydlo’ and passages so distended that they sounded more like random collections of notes and durations. ‘Shrovetide Fair’ sounded as an amalgam of tendencies in its predecessor. Fistfuls of notes, some right, some less so, had me ready to confess to anything: if only it would stop. I half expected Pogorelich’s left hand to quit, citing ‘artistic differences’ with his right. Had it done so, it might well have proved an act of mercy.

 Very much to my surprise, Brahms’s Paganini Variations emerged best from the evening’s confrontations. A welcome chaste opening to the First Book almost suggested Neue Sachlichkeit, arguably coming a little closer, if still not very close, to Stravinsky than the previous performance ever had. Here, for the most part Pogorelich’s technique was marshalled in a good, mesmerising cause. The third variation really sounded as if Paganini had turned pianist; the fourth and fifth seemed to herald the Second Piano Concerto and to pay tribute to Schumann in a way the Fantasie performance never really had. Weighty turbulence in the eighth was disrupted by a few oddities, but remained recognisably Brahms. Slower tempi, however, brought greater eccentricity, the twelfth sounding like – I really do not know what. The coda, however, was (relatively) back on the straight and narrow, boasting real direction and purpose. Coherence regained was maintained in the first variations of the Second Book. They were not necessarily ‘conventional’, but nor were they merely outré. We even came to hear later on a sense, briefly, of repose that was yet quietly ecstatic. Wonderful! Scampering post-Mendelssohn figures gained diabolical edge – although, I must admit, not always; nor did they always quite scamper. Double octaves, though, had greater depth than they ever had in the Liszt performance. The twelfth and thirteenth variations went so far towards what we might generally expect that they beguiled, rubato and voicing alike not only delightful but meaningful. Following a coda which did – more or less – what it should, I fled, lest there be an encore.

Mark Berry

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