I am quite sure that Pogorelich played every note that Beethoven had written, but he played them very, very slowly, paying absolutely no attention to Beethoven’s timing. There was no perceptible beat and, therefore, no melody. Pogorelich played each note or chord as if it was a musical statement in and of itself that had no connection with the notes before and after it...
Was he mad? Did he have Alzheimer’s? Was he experimenting with some avant-garde deconstructive performance technique? Was he being deliberately, slyly, malicious? And – what seemed just as odd as his performance – did his agent, his intimates, know he was going to come out and play that way?
I have done some Goo-Goo research, and have found answers, of sorts, to my questions, above.
Mad? Hmm. Perhaps.
Experimenting? That seems to be the case.
Malicious? Well, maybe. In 1980, the 22-year-old Pogorelich became famous by losing the Warsaw Chopin Competition. When Pogorelich did not even make the contest’s final cut, two of the judges – Martha Argerich and Nikita Magaloff – walked out, Argerich having declared that Pogorelich was a genius. The scandal propelled Pogorelich into notoriety in a way that simply winning the contest would not have. (The winner of the 1980 competition has not become a household name – in households of piano aficionados, that is – like Pogorelich has.) It earned him a slew of concert bookings and a recording contract.
Evidently, even at twenty-two, Pogorelich was an idiosyncratic interpreter – which was why the majority of the Warsaw judges rejected him – but had not yet morphed into eccentricity. One would think, considering the acclaim he earned by the 1980 kerfuffle, that Porgorelich would have gotten over any resentment he might have felt, but evidently he still harbors a grudge. (Pogorelich is Croatian; if I were politically incorrect, God forbid, I would say that holding old grudges is a Slavic trait.)
There is no audio or visual record of the 2006 recital I attended. To give you an idea of Pogorelich’s playing, which has passed beyond eccentric into incoherence, here is Chopin’s Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1, first played (in 5 minutes) by Ramon Schwarzkopf, then (in 8 minutes) by Pogorelich, live in Paris (audience coughing in French, no subtitles) in 2012:
Here is Pogorelich, on his wife, in a 2006 interview with Die Welt:
She clothed herself in art, she absorbed it, devoured it. She was so universal. She had everything, class, education, beauty, talent and affection. She outshone everything like a comet. You could never stand still with her, that's true, she was always on the go. Even in death she was still the princess she was born as. She had cancer of the liver. When she died her liver exploded, and in her last kiss she showered me with black blood. I looked like the Phantom of the Opera. My hair was completely clotted. I didn't want to wash it off. When they condoled us with champagne I was still covered in her blood. But everyone understood. It was like with Jackie Kennedy who didn't want to change the dress that was spattered with her husband's brain.
Pogorelich is fond of repeating four tenets of his wife, the piano pedagogue: achieve natural technical perfection; be aware of the historical development of the piano sound; make full use of the capabilities of the modern piano; understand the importance of differentiation. A review of a Pogorelich recital in Rome in 2011, by Jack Buckley, locates Pogorelich’s problems in the last of the four.
He remembers the fourth requirement as the importance of differentiation... 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.
Finally, Pogorelich’s twenty years of love and grief can be summed up in his response to Die Welt’s question (after he mentioned that his father had been an amateur swimmer): So do you also swim a lot?
"Mostly in tears."
While there still is a small cohort of Pogorelich devotees, this seems mainly to be composed of overwrought people who can hear music, but don’t know how to listen to it, were early caught up in the Pogorelich mystique of individualism and now, growing more and more defensive as Pogorelich’s playing is more and more reviled, regard him as a martyr to self-expression. (Just take a look at the comments following post-2000 performances on You Tube.)
Reviewers, while not exactly at a loss of words, struggle between the conflicting obligations of being kind and being honest.
Here are excerpts from some reviews of Pogorelich recitals. The first two review the concert I attended.
Readers, I have thought long and hard about what to say to you. I have asked, "What is my duty as a critic, and as a kind of reporter? What does conscience say?" I will not review this recital (and I heard only the first half of it). I will say only this: If the people around Mr. Pogorelich have any influence at all, they should dissuade him from playing in public. If they are actively encouraging him, they are doing a grave disservice.
In the Beethoven sonatas, Mr. Pogorelich was beyond unconventional, or eccentric, or even interestingly bizarre: He was ... well, as I said, beyond. He did not fall within even the most generous musical bounds. What we heard was not Beethoven; it was a talented man acting on some unfathomable interior impulses.
Jay Nordlinger, New York Sun, Oct. 30, 2006
His incoherent and interpretively perverse playing defies description. The first minutes of the opening work, Beethoven’s Sonata in No. 32 in C minor, were weirdly fascinating. Before long the performance was just plain weird.... Who could tell slow from fast in this passive-aggressive performance where each phrase, sometimes each measure, inhabited its own world?.. His tone palette had, essentially, two extremes: either he played with almost inaudible lightness, or he slam-banged chords and thumped out voices so brutally you pitied his poor Hamburg Steinway.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2006
Was Ivo Pogorelich really that bad during his Philadelphia Orchestra performance Wednesday in Suntory Hall? In a word, yes... "Well, he wasn't as bad he was five or six years ago when I heard him play some Brahms," said one concertgoer, "and that was really slow."
"But this wasn't really Chopin," said another.
By that point, I had stopped bargaining with my own expectations in an effort to find genius in what I heard. Not sounding like Chopin was the least of Pogorelich's problems. Was it even music?
David Patrick Stearns, (reviewing a Tokyo concert). Philadelphia Inquirer. April 29, 2010
Pogorelich was always a willful, uneven pianist, capable of mixing technical brilliance with crude, crass interpretative ideas. Now that technical brilliance has apparently disappeared, leaving only the crassness behind... It was clear from the first few minutes of the Liszt that Pogorelich’s technique was not going to be up to the challenges he had set for himself.
The results continued to be as uncomfortable and profoundly unmusical as anything I’ve heard in a concert hall in many years... Textures were unbalanced, emphases misplaced and phrasing often nonexistent, with pauses and exaggerated rubato introduced in the most inappropriate places so that all sense of continuity or shape was eliminated. Most distressing of all, there was no apparent concern for keyboard colour or touch; the playing was so brutally loud and crude that, well before the interval, the Steinway was audibly suffering from his assault.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, Feb. 25, 2015
But if Argerich had been here in the Festival Hall for Pogorelich’s first recital at the venue since 1999 – there was a 2009 Edinburgh Festival concert, following a period of self-imposed exile from concertising – she would surely have walked out in protest at his incoherent playing. Many wise audience members left at the interval, sparing themselves from one of the worst concerts in Festival Hall memory. To judge by Pogorelich’s sullen manner, his strange dialogue with the page-turner and fiddling with the piano stool between phrases, he is not a happy artist: should promoters really be selling tickets for such disturbing exhibitionism as this?
John Allison, The Telegraph, Feb. 25, 2015