By Lisa Ho
Franz Liszt was classical piano’s first idol. He took the European musical world by storm in the 19th century. With formidable technique at the piano (and in bed) and personal charisma, he left women swooning and men trembling after his concerts. He had fantastic hair too.
Ivo Pogorelich, who gave a recital at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) on the 3rd of October 2005, is considered by his fans as the modern-day equivalent of Franz Liszt. At his concerts, girls would sit right up front to gawk at him. He has very nice hair too, but when he came to KL to perform, he shaven it all off. That probably explains his bad bout of flu. Incidentally, Pogorelich reveals that he can actually trace his pupil-teacher lineage right back to Franz Liszt: he belongs to the 5th generation of that lineage, and is only about seven generations away from Beethoven. This pedigree certainly shows.
Pogorelich has been branded a controversial pianist, and this branding has both helped and disadvantaged him. Piano diva Martha Argerich, who proclaimed him a “genius” at the 1980 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, resigned as a judge in disgust at the elimination of Pogorelich in the third round of the competition. Pogorelich felt that she should have remained and fought for him to be brought back into the competition, like some of the eliminated contestants on American Idol. But Argerich had not the strength to browbeat the rest of the judges to uphold her point of view. This is certainly not the first instance where a judge resigns from the jury of a major piano competition due to disagreement. Alfred Cortot resigned when Roumanian pianist Dinu Lipatti was awarded only the second prize at the 1934 Vienna Piano Competition. Pogorelich felt that he gained no good publicity out of the controversy that surrounded his participation of the Chopin competition.
“Unpredictable” is another word used to describe Pogorelich’s piano playing. In his solo recital at the DFP (which followed two nights of performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C, op. 26 with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Kazuyoshi Akiyama), he changed his programme because of the flu. Instead of playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes and Chopin’s Nocturne No. 16 in E-flat, he chose two other pieces which he deemed “not so athletic” so that he could reserve his strength for Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor. The replacement pieces were both Chopin works: Nocturne in E (Op. 62, No. 2) and Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor.
Ivo Pogorelich began his recital with a deliberate slowness in Chopin’s Nocturne in E that most younger pianists would have taken with fleeter fingers. Because of this, the piece takes a different perspective: where listeners are normally accustomed to typical Chopin-esque pianism, both musicians and music virgins in the audience were treated to a sense of nobility and magisterial beauty quite unlike the flowers-and-perfume of sickly sentimentality in many of today’s Chopin playing. Pogorelich showed a lot of technical mastery in terms of control and even though this slowness was criticised by some in the audience (during the intermission) as overdone and boring, I felt that the slackening of momentum was just Pogorelich’s artistic choice which did not spoil the contextual aspect of the nocturne but lent a weight of insight upon its content and liberated it from frivolous sentimentality.
Pogorelich’s playing of the second piece, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, was both brilliant and idiosyncratic. Some people thought it was grotesque. Those who were polite endured his performance until they were released from their prisons by the applause and the lights that signalled intermission. Those who were less polite and certainly truthful, merely trampled their way out of their seats and clacked out of the hall: each stiletto-heel that came into contact with the wooden floor echoed a crackling indignance that Pogorelich ignored while his fans seethed.
Under Pogorelich’s massive hands, the Chopin sonata became less romantic, more dramatic and highly percussive. The extraordinary interpretation was deliberately peppered with deeply-plotted articulations that gave it a volatile edge. Pogorelich did not stop in between movements but melded the movements into a grand sweeping epic with a lot of colour, showing that Chopin is indeed not a composer of pasty musical poetry. Instead, by not playing to the gallery, Pogorelich managed to draw out dynamic contrasts of lyricism that did not border on exaggerated sweetness and affectations. The finale was played with great clarity and it seemed as though Pogorelich were flinging out notes with dazzling accuracy in a relentless pace of brilliance. Although I would disagree with his occassional de-synchronized hands, he certainly felt that it was a response in order to balance harmony, texture and melody. This is no Chopin I have ever heard. It is radical and somewhat strange, but nevertheless fascinating with bold strokes of colour, made striking by Pogorelich’s pedalling which was more Ravel than Chopin.
After the intermission, Pogorelich began the second half of his recital with the two-movement Skryabin Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp. The first movement was expressed with finely honed sensitivity to the languorous lines of the melody. Pogorelich’s phrasing was gorgeous with blended sonorities reflecting elements of Chopin’s narrative and tonal styles in Skryabin’s music. Then the Prestissimo volando took on a furious pace that broke the ealier sense of inner repose. The adrenalin rush I felt from this was relentless. The piano sounded as if it were being beaten into submission in the rapid cascade of notes and chords. The playing certainly exuded the exhilaration of a roller-coaster ride – deliciously dangerous but made secure in Pogorelich’s hands by the certainty of an impeccable technique.
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor was again interpreted differently from what I am used to listening. The slow second movement was almost painfully slow while the third movement, I felt, lost some of its coherence due to Pogorelich’s overemphasis on technical virtousity and grand colour above the need for some simple sense in melody. Some of the dense structure of Rachmaninoff’s sonata was made even more tangled in Pogorelich’s interpretation, but maybe, it was done to reflect the turbulent life Rachmaninoff had (and the composer was turning 40 when he wrote the piece in 1913).
While many people may not agree with Ivo Pogorelich’s style and interpretation of the pieces he chose to perform, it is important to note that his technical mastery of the piano is no puny, insignificant feat. Being unpredictable can sometimes be a blessed change from the regular tick-tock of mundane performances. I would have liked a slightly softer edge to his performance and a less obtrusive style of playing but Pogorelich is Pogorelich. Sometimes sheer glamour and a presence that seem controversial carry a different kind of authority that might be closer to the composers whose works Pogorelich plays than just mere studious technique and runof-the-mill interpretations. Attitude can be so good.
Lisa Ho is still recovering from gawking at the Croatian Idol up close during the very brief group interview session.
First Published: 25.10.2005 on Kakiseni