Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Pogorelich - Liszt, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Brahms, 24 February 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année, S 161: ‘Après une lecture de Dante’
Schumann – Fantasie in C major, op.17
Stravinsky – Three Movements from ‘Petrushka’
Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Paganini, op.35

Ivo Pogorelich (piano)

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. O 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, 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.


Simon-L said...

Mark, I wonder if there is not a certain value to unconventional, wayward or even grotesque performances that we should cherish? At the very least they make us appreciate more orthodox performances, and at the best they might even allow us to hear something in the work that we otherwise would have missed. For example, I am not the biggest Goodall fan, but you can hear things in his slow-burning Wagner that other conductors don't find. Bernstein's recording of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony sounds entirely wrong-headed to me, but it makes me appreciate the mastery of someone like Gunter Wand the more. Even one of the most controversial performances on disc, Glenn Gould's recordings of the Mozart piano sonatas (and you are probably shuddering and making an apotropaic gesture at the very idea), are performances I am rather fond of and have brought me back to great recordings by somone like Schnabel with more attention, having previously found Mozart's solo keyboard music a little tame. I think even outright incompetence has something to commend it, mainly by way of contrast. I wonder if the Proms, in a bit of daring programming, couldn't give us a short 'Terrible Orchestras' series, where some of the most amateurish bands in the world would hack their way through a few old warhorses. It might make us more appreciative of the high standards of musicianship we enjoy in this country, which may occasionally be taken for granted. Your review – although I'm sure that wasn't the intention – did make me feel that it was a rare event ('performance art', with more of the former than the latter, perhaps), that I wish I had been there to witness. I don't think I would have forgotten it in a hurry, and I doubt that many people 'lucky' enough to be in the audience will either.

David said...

Such things are best left to the cold light of recording, I'd say, Simon-L. In the concert hall I'd be inclined to shout out in horror, as I wanted to do during the second half of curate's-egg Khatia Buniatishvili's London recital. Goodall couldn't really do drama in the theatre - or wasn't interested - but, yes, there's real enlightenment to be gained from just listening to his ENO Mastersingers or WNO Tristan. Celibidache ditto.

I can all too well imagine the horrors of Pogorelich's latest offering from fairly recent experience.

Simon-L said...

Yes, I imagine you can feel trapped in a live setting if the performance is a little too 'individual'. Interesting that you cite 'Celi' as someone best experienced on disc, since the man himself, of course, was not in favour of having himself recorded. With the occasional exception (his Bruckner 4) I find his ultra slow tempi terribly off-putting, and have wondered if I would feel differently had I ever heard him live. I recall reading a liner note written by his son, I think, going on about the 'epiphenomena' that was such an important part of the live experience. For what that's worth - and I am not even sure I know what it means.

Mark Berry said...

The peculiar - or, perhaps not so peculiar - thing was that my attention never wandered. I suppose one might say that it was never given occasion to do so. Indeed, during the Stravinsky, I began to wonder whether someone had forgotten to supply me with a safe word. But it was certainly a more interesting experience - as Simon says, perhaps more akin to performance art - than listening to some bland, identikit competition winner.

Mark Berry said...

Another reader, Stephen Loxton, sent me this comment (via e-mail, since he was unable to post):

Quite agree Mark. The Brahms passed muster and was very impressive for the most part: the Schumann was dreadful - atomised into incoherence; Stravinsky was heavy labour where lightness and real velocity are needed; with the Liszt is was more a case of the left hand not knowing what the right had was up to: as a rule the former obliterated the latter. So slow was the recital I missed the usual train at 9.39 and had to take the 1022! I heard the late great L Berman in the Lizst, and Pollini in the Stravinsky, and I am afraid Pogorelich does not get close. As a pianist he has the bad habit of seeing quiet passages as signals to slow virtually to a stop; so line, sonority, musical sense and the like are lost. Another bad habit is the amount of heft he gives the keyboard with the left hand – it distorts the balance and again, the line and shape of the musical argument is blown away. One might think that a pianist playing from the score will play what is written…. But not Pogorelich!

Lisa Hirsch said...


Veronika Kralj-Iglic said...

I listened yesterday on youtube the Dante sonata by Pogorelich (it is stated that it was recorded live in Rotterdam, 12 October 2014) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BigzeoX6Kw.
I have not known this work before so his interpretation was the first one to me. I loved it, listened immediately at least 5 more times and also looked at the score. Pogorelic's interpretation seemed to me natural, logical and consistent with the score. Then I listened it by Berman, Cziffra and Arrau, also great, but today I again want to hear more of this particular piece by Pogorelich.

Once written, the score is let to be interpreted by different pianists (including possibly the author) and it can be expected that they will do it differently. There is no label to it how it should be performed and it is senseless to say that Pogorelich's Dante is out or order because he is not playing the same way as Berman or Pollini (or Lizst himself). To me it seems a sound performance with a message so strong that it were pity to miss by being alert for some particularities not to someone's taste.

With advance in teaching and technique there are now many pianists that are able to play difficult pieces with all the right notes, at incredible speed and with complete intelectual and emotional control over the piece. Pogorelich has reached this long ago and apparently needs to move forward. Although some of his moves seem surprising, whatever he is doing revived the Dante sonata written by Lizst a masterpiece.