It took me a few years to choose which one it would be. It was an important decision. After all, it would be at the heart of how I defined myself.
A coolly poetic intellectual, with a trickster streak, for whom the lyrics of “Paint It Black” are an exquisite imagist lament, combining the mellifluence of the French fin de siècle with powerful Anglo-Saxon iambs?
A stealth Buddhist, tirelessly, staunchly making his way through the jungle of the material world, the liana of emotional ties, the dense underbrush of things, confident that attainment is possible since he’s seen it done by John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things”, twice, in 1966, at the Village Vanguard and the Village Theater, and by Charlotte Novitz, in 1958, in her walk-up above a tavern at the bottom of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, dancing in silence before a canvas, flicking her brush like an agile, cheerful fencer who knows she always wins, and sometime in the early ‘60’s, by Teddy McNeil plaintively singing “Wild Mountain Thyme” in a corner of a noisy party in an apartment overlooking West End Avenue, and who still can hear it done, whenever he wants, by fifteen or twenty people all at once – Madeline Grey, and a small pick-up orchestra conducted by Elie Cohen – in a 1930 recording of eleven of Canteloube’s Chants d'Auvergne?
An unabashed sentimentalist, a votary Stendhal, in the Order of Fabrizio del Dongo, who enjoys the prison in which he is confined since it allows him, from time to time, to delight in something – for example, the plaintive, cultivated performance of Satie on instruments such as viols, rebecs and crumhorns by a Japanese early music ensemble called Danceries, which has crystallized in his mind into the highest expression of beauty?
The latest and likely the last avatar for a complex, individual nature, fundamentally unchanged over seventy years: a provincially cosmopolitan old codger, whose amiable stoicism is always being undermined by loss and chagrin, but who finds an occasional respite from the confusion of life in art, most reliably in the adagios of two Haydn piano sonatas played by Ivo Pogorelich?
Eventually I chose (as my favorite CD, in case you’ve forgotten) the Pogorelich Haydn, and the persona that goes with it.
As a rule, I won’t travel more than half an hour just to go to a concert, but in 2006 a Pogorelich recital was scheduled at the Metropolitan Museum. I certainly did not want to miss seeing this master – of Haydn adagios, at least – for the first time.
The Met’s medium-sized auditorium (700 seats) was full. The audience was enthusiastic; that was clear from the prolonged applause when Pororelich came on stage, tux-attired, poised, but still with the slightly absent-minded shambling air of an artiste – a perfectly respectable self-presentation for a renowned pianist in his first New York concert in ten years. Following an appropriately gracious bow, Pogorelich sat down to play Beethoven’s Op.111.
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.
Soon there were disgruntled murmurs in the audience. People began to walk out. I was intrigued by the fact that these people’s sense of musical propriety could keep them from being present at what probably was the most unusual performance of Beethoven they would ever hear. Perhaps they left because they could not stand the pain of watching what surely – or so I thought – was the annihilation of a career.
After the sonata, during intermission, I ran into Cynthia, my sister, in the lobby. Cynthia had little interest in music, especially classical music, and was just there to accompany a friend. Her social antennae were super-sensitive, however, so she was aware that she was not the only one who was bewildered. When she asked me what I thought of the performance, I told her that it was like listening to Coltrane play “My Favorite Things,” when the original composition mutates into unrecognizability in the ardor of a performance.
It was a glib, pompous, false analogy. Coltrane took Richard Rodgers’ banal song and wove it into an elaborate and riveting forty-five minute expressionist tapestry. Pogorelich had taken Beethoven’s message to mankind and torn it into little pieces.
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?