The lesser of two Ivos

This piano recital only showcased the decline of a once-great artist.

By JONATHAN BECK
March 18, 2010 19:24
4 minute read.
Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelic' (courtesy).

ivo pogorelic 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Ivo Pogorelic
The Jerusalem Theater
March 17

I’ll start with an old joke: Mr. and Mrs. Smith, who have season tickets to the opera, invite the Johnsons to join them in their booth at a performance of Verdi’s Aida. During the show, Mrs. Smith chatters relentlessly, much to the annoyance of Mr. Johnson, an opera buff. At the end of the show, Mrs. Smith approaches the Johnsons and says, “Did you enjoy it? I thought it was wonderful. Next week they have Carmen – you should come again.” Quips Mr. Johnson: “I have not yet heard you in Carmen.”

Sadly, Ivo Pogorelic´’s piano recital at the Jerusalem Theater last Wednesday evening reminded me of that joke.

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There is a paradox to every performance of classical music: while instrumentalists or singers may attain superstar status, there is always a measure of servility inherent to their art, in that their abilities are measured by the extent to which they can make the composer’s intentions shine through their own work. Thus, the player is, even at his finest, only a vessel for something greater than himself; he is there merely to make the notes on the page come to life, and anything he manages to express should already be implied by the score, waiting to be brought to life.

Pogorelic´ played a collection of pieces by Chopin, Liszt, Sibelius and Ravel, but everything sounded like Pogorelic´. And this is not to say that the composers’ pieces shone through the spirit of Pogorelic´ – nothing sounded remotely like its score, and some of the pieces were almost unidentifiable.

Undoubtedly a consummate pianist with unlimited technical prowess, the Croatian-born virtuoso – who was catapulted to fame after his unorthodox interpretations of Chopin won the crowd but failed to convert the judges at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1980 (prompting jury member Martha Argerich to declare him a “genius” and walk off the panel in protest) – has degenerated since his early fame to become a megalomaniac so infatuated with his own personal notion of “unorthodox interpretation” that he has forgotten how to make the piano sing.

Pogorelic´’s supreme skills at producing timbres and dynamics, combined with a preference towards playing everything extremely slowly – he dragged pauses in the score to veritable hiatuses – simply made the pieces fall apart into fragments, rendering phrases unintelligible and doing away even with the harmony of the chords.

I am all for idiosyncratic interpretations – when they serve to illuminate the score in a new way and make me hear a piece as if for the first time. But an idiosyncratic interpretation must have its own inner reasoning, a method that makes me think, “Well, it’s different, but somehow it still works.”



There was nothing of the sort on Wednesday evening. I could have said that at this stage of his career Pogorelic´ makes everything he plays sound like Webern, but that would have been an insult to Webern, whom I admire. It does however give some idea as to the deconstruction, nay, the demolition, he wrought on the pieces.

ABUSING THE crowd is all part and parcel of the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, and the audience can be expected to agree to it only so long as it has an upside.

Pogorelic´’s hateful, aggressive behavior would have been all-but-forgotten had he supplied the divine music-making for which he has become famous, such as his superb rendition of Scarlatti’s sonatas in the early 1990s or his recordings of Chopin earlier in his career.

Pogorelic´, known for his antics, scolded the crowd from the first piece, telling the audience to “stop talking!” while he was playing. He even had the insolence to admonish the Jerusalemites, who paid more than NIS 300 a head to see him, that “this is a concert hall, not your Knesset.” After that outburst and during the intermission some members of the audience left in protest, and during the second half, one of the “stop talking” scolds even prompted an audience member to shout back at Pogorelic´ to “stop playing!”

It would be an understatement to say that the Israeli crowd is not known for being the world’s most silent. But on Wednesday, audience members, instead of being transfixed in silent astonishment, were simply terrorized into silence, squirming in their seats and probably wondering collectively if the pieces were really meant to be so long, boring, jittery and musically nonsensical. 

Pogorelic´’s playing of fortissimo notes (which he chose seemingly at random rather than based on the score) was so violent that during the intermission a tuner had to go on stage and bring the piano back up to pitch. These fortissimos would have been climactic as a cataclysmic effect designed to highlight the score and bring the musical arc to a peak. But instead they were so numerous and unevenly placed that they just made the whole recital, from start to finish, sound like jumbled, unseemly noise.

Pogorelic´, formerly one of the world’s finest pianists, simply shortchanged the audience. And he cannibalized Chopin, Liszt, Sibelius and Ravel.

And if that was Pogorelic´’s “quirky” personality coming through the mélange horrible of sounds, I would rather listen to any run-of-the-mill piano student. At least they would have the humility to hold the music with a minimum of reverence.

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