Whatever you may think of Ivo Pogorelich’s piano playing, there is no doubt you will think *something* about it. He’s not a pianist who inspires an indifferent shrug, nor a polite round of applause. With Pogorelich, you’re either with him, or against him.
I found my position wavering during his Royal Festival Hall performance on 24th February. There were moments where his eccentricities utterly overwhelmed the music, smothering it in a blanket of weirdness. Entire passages verged on – and frequently crossed the line into – incoherence. His slow tempos constantly felt like they would break off and stop altogether. Faster sections were often magicked into slow sections, seemingly just to see what would happen.
So: infuriating, yes. But this is Pogorelich. We know this about Pogorelich. This is why the RFH was only about three-quarters full for a pianist who would once have sold it out easily.
The thing is, sometimes all those mannerisms and bizarre quirks coalesce into something magical. And that happens more frequently than we might have been led to believe by his reviews over the last decade or so. Those moments where he hits just the right wavelength and makes you feel like you’re wandering around inside the music, gazing at the melodies and counter-melodies and harmonies and rhythms as though they were exhibits in an art gallery. In these moments, you notice things you’d never noticed before, discover a hundred shades of pianissimo you never knew existed, comprehend the most obscure of connections between notes. Those moments can revitalise even the mangiest of warhorses.
Other times, of course, he misses that special wavelength completely and turns in a clunky, thumping performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Three Movements from Petrushka’, or a disjointed, unmusical opening movement of the Schumann ‘Fantasy in C’. It’s telling that his best performance tonight was of the Brahms ‘Paganini Variations’, whose short contained little blocks of music offered few opportunities for epic self-indulgence.
And yet, I think it is the strange and beautiful closing movement of the Schumann I will most remember from this evening. It’s a piece I sort of play myself (slowly, with many wrong notes and retakes) and yet it felt thoroughly unfamiliar in Pogorelich’s hands, as if he were inventing it there and then. It’s that sense of spontaneity and discovery that makes Pogorelich a special artist. Yes, he may frequently discover utterly perverse new ways to play something. But even those failures are fascinating, and worth hearing.
In an age where young musicians are hewing ever closer to a uniform, idealised style of performance – as exemplified by whatever classic recordings they’ve heard growing up – here is a resolutely individual performer who sounds like he’s never heard another pianist in his life. We need more Pogorelichs in our world, in all their perverse, egotistical, infuriating and ultimately scintillating glory.
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance writer and critic based in London. He plays the piano not nearly as well as he would like to.