Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelić is afforded the status of legendary as much for his playing as a certain notoriety surrounding his life and career. He came to international prominence in 1980 at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw when Martha Argerich declared him “a genius” and then walked out in protest after he was eliminated in the third round, the ensuing controversy somewhat taking the shine off the eventual winner that year. His early recordings for DG won ecstatic praise, his concerts were mobbed by enthusiastic fans, but some critics began to wonder about certain idiosyncrasies and eccentricities in his interpretations.

Pogorelić last performed in London in 1999, and in a recent interview for International Piano magazine, he declared that this concert at the Royal Festival Hall was no “comeback”. But judging by the multi-lingual excited buzz of anticipation the foyer and bars at the Festival Hall, most concert-goers regarded this as the comeback concert.

The programme was meaty: all big, popular works of the standard repertoire which test the pianist’s technical and interpretative skills to the limit. The opening work, Liszt’s Dante Sonata, the concluding movement of the second book of the Années de pèlerinage, began imposingly enough, dramatic and declamatory, but the piano tone was harsh and dry. There were passages of great beauty and expression when the volume was reduced to almost a whisper, moments which hinted at great artistry, before the clanging chords returned. But there were also moments of apparent uncertainty, as if the pianist was 'doodling' on the keys. These disparate elements were simply episodes which never really cohered into a convincing whole.

If there were concerns about the Dante Sonata, Schumann's Fantasy in C major, composed as a love-letter to Clara Wieck, caused more serious anxieties, for the audience at least. Not so the pianist, who appeared to relish the more leisurely tempo than is customary in this piece and was apparently unaware of the unappealing sound emanating from the instrument. The performance lacked warmth and romance, occasional moments of tenderness lost in the eccentric tempi which had members of the audience reaching for their programmes for something to read while the pianist toiled on.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, written after the composer had completed The Firebird, depicts a puppet, the Russian version of Mr Punch. Anyone expecting wit and humour in this music was sorely disappointed. The opening movement lacked percussive bite and bounce, its chords uncompromisingly lumpen and ugly of tone. There was no shine, no playfulness nor exuberance here. Instead, one had the sense of the pianist hacking through the music, groping for the final cadence. Meanwhile, the second movement was laboured, and the third was an exercise in damage limitation, the joyful theme lost amid clusters of misplaced notes and halting tempi.

In complete contrast the Brahms Paganini Variations were rich in colour and contrasts, the opening theme suitably capricious and the technical challenges surmounted with apparent ease (the Variations, in effect, provide a series of exercises for the pianist). This was the most successful part of the evening, but to play both books seemed a little self-indulgent: Book 1 would have sufficed. It had been a long evening.

In spite of this, the performance was curiously captivating. Pogorelić’s stage presence – strolling to the piano, adjusting the stool mid-performance, pained body language (at one point looking as if he might just give up and leave) – and his relationship with the page-turner, his insistence on picking up the discarded scores from the floor under the piano (instead of leaving the page-turner to do this) made for some comedic moments, possibly intentional. Whatever one may think of Pogorelić’s playing now, there is no doubting his ability to create talking-points: this is an artist who thrives on scandal.

**111