Ivo Pogorelich (piano)


NCH, Dublin

Liszt – Mephisto Waltz.

Brahms – Intermezzo in A Op 118 No 2. Sibelius – Valse triste.

Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit.

Remember Ivo Pogorelich? Some 30 years ago this month ,the Belgrade-born pianist was a virtual unknown. Six months later he became a cause célèbre after jury-member Martha Argerich resigned in protest when he failed to make the cut for the finals of the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

The Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son went on to take the top prize and recordings from the competition suggest he was a worthy winner. It was Pogorelich though who landed the big international career – and the Deutsche Grammophon recording contract – from that year’s competition.

For the best part of two decades, he was in the international limelight. He established his own festival and piano competition and used his celebrity for non-musical ends. He became a Unesco goodwill ambassador and raised funds for projects in Sarajevo and Dubrovnik and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

As a musician he was always controversial, highly individualistic in his interpretative stance, famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – for his slow speeds, as if he were sometimes interested in providing listeners with the musical analogue of a microscopic inspection.

Yet his pianistic skills were such that, however strange the overall effect, the actual sound was usually ravishing.

The Pogorelich who returned to the National Concert Hall was barely recognisable as the pianist you might know from his recordings or have heard in concert in Ireland back in the 1980s.

The first problem was the slowness, an unrelenting, interminable-seeming, distension that distorted virtually everything that passed through his fingers.

Pogorelich’s 1983 recording of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuitclocks in at under 24 minutes; Wednesday’s performance was just a few minutes short of 40. Sibelius’s Valse triste, which normally takes about five minutes, was stretched out to 13.

Such slow speeds would be difficult enough to bring off at the best of times, but Pogorelich wasn’t just slow, he was utterly unpredictable when it came to rhythm. Simply put, he just played as he pleased, holding on to particular notes or delaying other ones in a way that seemed entirely arbitrary. Without any rationale of proportion, there simply wasn’t any sense of rhythmic shape.

The playing was arbitrary, too, when it came to accentuation and dynamics. The composer asks for as quiet as possible? Never mind. Play it as loudly as you like. The composer writes a crescendo? Who cares? Get quieter if you prefer. The composer specifically says don’t speed up or slow down, as Ravel does, to convey the ominous tolling of a bell in Le Gibet? Really, who’s he to know? Just do your own thing.

Anyone who remembers Pogorelich as a player of exceptional tonal finesse will have been bitterly disappointed by this display, which involved frequent ugliness of tone and absurd dislocations of chords to facilitate the accentuation of individual notes.

Yes, there were some moments when the tonal skills and graces of the young Pogorelich were fleetingly heard, but they were few and far between.

What was going on? I’ve no idea. Pogorelich was clearly working on scales of time and dynamics and to a system of musical logic that are simply closed to the rest of us.

Some people got up and left during the first half. Many more failed to return after the interval and there was a large exodus just before the final item. Myself, I kept on having crazy thoughts about being transplanted into a science fiction scenario, to become a guinea pig in an experiment on audience reactions to music-making in a reality distortion field. It’s not an experiment I’d like to repeat.