All negative Ivo Pogorelić reviews are alike, each positive Pogorelić review is positive in its own way. As much as I hate to be paraphrasing a cliché here, I feel it’s true – particularly after having read critique upon critique about the recent appearance of the elusive Croatian pianist at London’s Royal Albert Hall in which he presented the very same programme he did here in Istanbul on Thursday, March 26. The reviews en masse go on about how he dismembered this work or the next, centering on his eccentricity, and not really digging deeper into his ambitions in doing what he does. By now (he is 56) we know what to expect from a Pogorelić recital: his reading of a piece is likely to be very unorthodox compared to how we believe it should sound, with what may seem to be bizarre phrasing, haphazard tempo changes and unexpected pauses. But the point is, with Ivo Pogorelić, bizarre doesn’t necessarily mean weird, haphazard may not mean whimsical and unexpected certainly doesn’t mean uncalled for.

Ivo Pogorelić © Alfonso Batalla
Ivo Pogorelić
© Alfonso Batalla

His opener, Liszt’s Dante Sonata, was a perfect case in point: the composer’s opening octaves echoing Hell’s Bells, were played sparingly here. They are meant to sound disconcerting and they were hit not in perfect unison but the bass note hitting ever slightly afterwards drawing an expressively ugly tone from the Steinway, no doubt, carefully planned to pave the way for the composer’s depiction of crying souls of Inferno which was to follow. The first section of the piece is not pretty. It is supposed to feel heavy and overbearing, and that was the exact impression Mr Pogorelić managed to convey here. Contrast that with his quiet and angelic phrasing of the chorale of the second theme, and you arrive at a performance, although a good ten minutes longer than the norm, that was stupendous.

Schumann’s own preface for his Fantasie in C can perhaps better explain Mr Pogorelić’s approach to this masterpiece:

“Resounding through all the notes
In the earth's colorful dream
There sounds a faint long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.”

Really taking his time with the material (clocking in at over 45 minutes), the pianist gave Schumann’s every bar its due. The composer’s left hand arpeggios in the opening, which are generally drown out and presented as a mere accompaniment to the initial theme, were played with clarity and little pedal. From there we traveled to the second theme in which Mr Pogorelić was soft and very affectionate. He upped the intensity towards the repeat of the theme and when it arrived, his piano was having a hard time trying to keep up with his fury. The march movement was the only part of his performance where I had my reservations. His slightly jazzed-up rhythmic choices did not sit well with me and I would have preferred the march beat to be prominent. His very convincing Adagio was played delicately evoking images of a starry night, true to Schumann’s intentions.

The second part of the recital began with another heavy warhorse: Stravinsky’s laborious 3 movements from Petrushka. Mr Pogorelić was on fire during the Russian Dance, not missing a single beat or a note although he did seem to be just able to keep the more chaotic passages under control. This wasn’t Pollini’s or Weissenberg’s Russian Dance for sure, no trace of their “total domination” trademarks here. Mr Pogorelić’s rendition was more human, with more dynamic contrast and a wide array of sonorities. It was during the second movement that we got to hear the pianist’s lightning fast right finger work. The final La semaine grasse movement sounded wholly orchestral with Mr Pogorelić’s fingers clanking out phrasings echoing sections of an ensemble mimicking woodwinds, strings and even percussion simultaneously. Though the whole work took a little over twenty minutes, it did not sound drawn-out at all. It was really quite an experience.

There was still more technically challenging music to come in the shape of Brahms’ (in my opinion, thoroughly uninteresting and repetitive) Variations on a Theme by Paganini. It's not a favourite work of mine – I find that the variations tend to dance around the theme without really taking off – it is always a good decision to play both books, as the stimulating variations are interspersed among the two. Mr Pogorelić had more than enough technique left in him to go through the work. Even after the devilishly difficult program he had been through, the pianist seemed to revere and enjoy the allegro variations which he played with full force and vigor, while the more interesting slower ones were hastily gotten over with as if they were small inconveniences along the way.

All in all, this was a triumphant evening for piano music. Mr Pogorelić may have his adversaries and his admirers, he may have his ups and downs but what is sure is that he is one of the very few pianists alive today who are artists first and performers second.  

****1