Many great performing artists, especially pianists such as Artur Rubinstein, Alfred Cortot, or Claudio Arrau clearly matured with age like a fine bordeaux. In the case of Ivo Pogorelić, it would appear the wine turned sour about 20 years ago. Following the death of his teacher, mentor and muse Aliza Kezeradze (who was also his wife) in 1996, something derailed the Pogorelić Express. As Anthony Tommasini lamented in The New York Times “here is an immense talent gone tragically astray. What went wrong?”

Clearly there were serious grounds for apprehension about Pogorelić’s return to the stage which launched his career 35 years ago. In reality the performance was not as egregious as feared, however it was a very long way from satisfactory. In his halcyon days Pogorelić was challenging, cheeky, provocative or precocious but never, ever boring. Unfortunately this would be the most accurate adjective to describe last night’s performance.

Whilst there was certainly lots of loudness, there was no fire. When there were some rare lyrical piano passages, there was no poetry. When the score called for extended double octaves and more challenging technical wizardry, there was the pedal. The sustain pedal was used so often one could believe that Mr Pogorelić’s boot-maker had put lead on the sole of his right shoe instead of leather. Perhaps such artistic laissez-faire was attributable to Pogorelić’s recent quirk of playing with the score in front of him and the necessity of a distracting page-turner.

Just before the concert Pogorelić announced he would include two Chopin nocturnes as a kind of premature encores.  The first was no. 14 in C minor, which sounded as nocturnal as a 21-gun salute. The second, no. 19 in E major, was more successful and showed hints of Pogorelić’s former formidable lightness of touch and sensitive phrasing.

The concert proper started with Chopin’s monumental Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor which Pogorelić has probably played since a toddler in Trogir. The rhapsodic D major second subject in the first movement was taken very fast, with unsentimental disregard for the inherent lyricism of the melodic line. The second movement Scherzo was marred with blurred leggere passages and tonal heaviness while the largo third movement often felt as if it was going to grind to a halt. The repeated B naturals in the E major sostenuto section lacked sweetness, although there was some unexpected gentle rubato on the C sharp minim leading back to the recurring B. The presto non tanto final movement was an exercise in unevenly articulated rapid scale passages which again depended on the pedal to reach approximate completion.

The Liszt Fantasia quasi Sonata is also entitled Après une lecture de Dante and in this case one could certainly add a level of unbearable loudness to the nine circles of hell. The sustain pedal was again used to muddy any identifiable thematic articulation. A number of people left at this point.

The sublime Schumann Fantasy in C major was the most disappointing of all. The opening melody in octaves was taken so slowly Schumann’s passion would have wilted before the fourth measure. When repeated in single note form there was slightly more lyricism but still thumped out with almost brutal marcato. The stirring second movement was taken too fast with consequent loss of phrasing and thematic shape. A constantly heavy pounding left hand impaired any melodic balance and overwhelmed the syncopated middle section. The deeply reflective third movement was certainly langsam but degenerated into mundane unmelodic individual note pecking.

Tellingly, Pogorelić once commented “If I feel (a performance) wasn't quite perfect…then I might hammer out a hit like Balakirev's Islamey” which is exactly what happened. It was also the most satisfying piece of the evening. Finally Pogorelić left his foot off the sustain pedal and showed a rare glimpse of his former virtuosity in crisp rhythmic playing and some spectacular double octave runs and scale passages.

For many in the audience however, it was too little too late. The person on the stage was no longer the brilliant hope for a new generation of Liszt-Busoni wunderkind pianists, but a mere phantom of a once-was extraordinary talent. Martha Argerich would never have resigned from the jury on the strength of this performance.