Ivo the Divo


I did something last night that I have only ever done once before: I walked out of a piano recital at the interval. If I hadn’t been sitting in the middle of Row K at the Royal Festival Hall I’d have walked out sooner. This was the much-heralded return to the venue after an absence of fifteen years by the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich.

I interviewed the controversial maestro in Paris last year when he held forth about the massive programme he was preparing for 2015: Liszt’s Dante Sonata, Schumann’s C major Fantasie, both books of Brahms’ Paganini Variations and Stravinsky’s Three Dances from Petrushka. Pogorelich’s career has slumped dramatically since the heady days of the 1980s when he was classical music’s pin-up boy producing a succession of recordings (Gaspard de la Nuit, Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, Schumann’s Toccata and Bach’s English Suites) that remain among the greatest on disc. But since the late 1990s – and notably since the death of his wife in 1996 – his playing has become increasingly erratic and, to be kind, eccentric. An off-air performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto heard online is a simply bizarre mangling of what the composer intended.

I was forewarned immediately before the recital began that both halves would last more than 15 minutes longer than the timings given in the programme. The first page of the Dante Sonata indeed confirmed that we were in for a very long haul. Pogorelich’s grave, stately, not to say princely, entrance with score in hand, was accompanied by a page turner. Poor man. A lofty wave to move the second stool out of his body area, a gesture to move one of the scores he had thrown on the floor a little further away from his eye line…not the way to treat someone in this role. And then we were off – not exactly at a canter, more at a snail’s pace. A work that normally lasts 16 minutes took nearly 25 to complete. A number of things sent alarm signals ringing: the sectionalised, fragmented playing of the text; the complete lack of overall structure; the wayward, illogical phrasing; the appalling tone production; the unclear voicing where heavily accentuated bass lines obliterated the main subject; the random dynamics within a phrase; and last but not least a count of miss-hits and fluffs not worthy of an international pianist. People had paid good money for this event but if I hadn’t spoken to the guy about the programme six months previously I would have thought he had only started learning the works a few weeks ago. The Schumann Fantasy was given similar treatment – usually lasting 32 minutes it finally fizzled out at nearer 40. Frequently, the music simply stopped: all impetus was lost. Nothing was happening on stage. When he did call on the remains of his technique (in the notorious middle movement) the force of his playing was unpleasant to listen to.

As I left for a well-earned drink I passed a friend (a distinguished record producer) and asked him if he was going back for the second half. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s grotesque.’ Another phoned me this morning, someone who has been to more concerts than anyone I know. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that was the worst piano recital I have ever been to.’ I gather the second half did not get any better. One kinda knew it wouldn’t.

Of course it’s sad whenever a great artist loses his mojo. But Pogorelich is his own worst enemy. Famously arrogant, he is a law unto himself and in his eyes can do no wrong. Someone, maybe his agent, must stand up to him and tell him straight not to appear again in public until he has re-thought his whole ethos, his musical credo. He no longer has the status of a major or even important pianist whose artistry can justify high ticket prices. There are many better ones out there far less well-known who, on Tuesday evening’s showing, could play Mr Pogorelich off the stage into the powder room.

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