Sunday 30 August 2009

Edinburgh International Festival (1): Ivo Pogorelich piano recital - Chopin, Liszt, Sibelius, and Ravel, 29 August 2009

Usher Hall

Chopin – Nocturne in E major, Op.62 no.2
Chopin – Piano sonata no.3 in B minor, Op.58
Liszt – Mephisto Waltz no.1
Sibelius – Valse triste, op.44
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit

This was the strangest piano recital I have ever attended. Prefacing a transcendental account of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit were some of the most astonishingly perverse performances of other works I can recall. Perhaps the least odd element was the pianist’s incongruous dress: black tie and tails. Of course, Ivo Pogorelich has always been a controversial musician. Fame was thrust upon him by elimination after the third round from the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Martha Argerich was so outraged that she resigned from the jury. Thereafter, performances and recordings elicited wildly divergent appraisals. Some thought Argerich’s hailing of a ‘genius’ not at all far from the mark. At least two recordings would readily find a place in my pianistic pantheon: one of Scarlatti sonatas, the other of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata and Gaspard de la nuit. Others were shocked by the liberties they heard. I am certainly no purist and should always welcome with open arms explorative risk-taking over dreary conformism, but I was nevertheless entirely unprepared for what was to follow.

Speaking of competition-winners – or otherwise – few composers have suffered at their hands so much as Chopin. The number of bland, technically perfect performances inflicted upon this poet of the keyboard can scarcely be guessed. Pogorelich was having none of that, instead presenting a deliberate, nay trudging, E major Nocturne, with great emphasis – to put it mildly – placed upon the melodic line. Think of an organist thumping out a fugue subject on a trumpet stop and you might approach the idea. There was greater movement, for there could hardly have been less – or so I thought – as the music became more contrapuntally involved: fair enough. There was also a wholesale transformation from deliberation to an improvisatory quality that suggested bar lines had magically melted away. This was distinctly odd but in a way refreshing. But then, we returned back to earth with a reprise of the opening style. The music pretty much ground to a halt. I suppose it made one consider the score anew, but even so…

The opening to the Allegro maestoso of the same composer’s third sonata was certainly maestoso, though decidedly grim. Hints of passion could be heard – briefly – in the build up to the second subject, but were soon banished. That theme was sung, but sung in a decidedly aggressive fashion, as if Pogorelich were determined to rid the music of any hint of degenerate Bellinian inspiration. Perhaps he was. There was a general feeling throughout of great listlessness. The scherzo brought mercurial virtuosity but its trio was distended almost beyond belief. (The first but not last intervention of a mobile telephone intensified the agony, whilst the bronchially-challenged made their presence felt unusually keenly throughout.) A strangely severe introduction to the Largo sounded as though it had come from the weird world of late Liszt. It led us into a rhythmically implacable, utterly unsmiling, positively – or negatively – glacial account of a movement drawn out to mammoth proportions. I am all for a Largo sounding as a Largo, but even so… The finale was rather more fitting: restless, but that works better here. Not only did one hear often breathtaking virtuosity; there was a certain musical sense to a strormy, vehement performance. It was too late though.

Concluding the first part was Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz. Weirdness is less out of place here but Pogorelich nevertheless exceeded the bounds of the imaginable. This extraordinary rendition was so disjointed that it appeared to lose musical sense entirely; it resembled a peculiar laboratory experiment rather than a performance. Hammered out, it utterly lacked charm: this was neither Liszt nor Faust the seducer. The contrasting forest-music material was once again glacial in the extreme, though a certain sadness occasionally seeped through. Mephistopheles did not insinuate; he straightforwardly brutalised. One gin-and-tonic was certainly not enough for this browbeaten reviewer during the ensuing interval.

Sibelius’s Valse triste seemed an odd programming choice, but the performance proved far odder still. It was almost unbelievably slow – and I am not sure why I appended ‘almost’. This is a sad waltz, I know, and one does not expect Richard, let alone Johann, Strauss, but even so… There was considerable variation in the basic pulse, sometimes providing relief, sometimes in the opposing direction. The intensity of the climax was quite staggering, yet seemed bizarrely misplaced. However, there was something chillingly pure to the voicing of the final chords, which made one wonder, despite the barrage of coughing, about what might have been.

Finally, Gaspard de la nuit. With the very opening of Ondine, everything suddenly sounded right – and righted. Shimmering right-hand figuration provided a perfect foil to the left-hand song below and above. One could hear every note – almost all of them correct – without any sacrifice to the poetic effect. This certainly sounded more Lisztian than the Liszt piece had, both harmonically and in the well-judged application of virtuoso technique to musico-poetic ends. In Le gibet, a glacial, obstinate persistency, of an infintely more atmospheric quality than earlier on, could at last truly come into its own. Terror was in the air, though so was the noise from another electronic device. Lisztian pyrotechnics were even more to the fore in Scarbo, which received a truly diabolical reading. This sprite was dartingly elusive and unmistakeably malignant. Pogorelich’s performance was a tour de force but a musical one, fantastic in more than one sense. What happened thereafter I cannot tell, since I quickly fled the hall, lest a perverse encore tarnish the memory of what I had just heard.