Edinburgh Festival: Chopin, Lizst, Ravel, Sibelius

Ivo Pogorelich (piano)

Usher Hall, 3 September 2009 5 stars

ivo pogorelichA couple of days after leaving the hall after the Ivo Pogorelich recital at the Edinburgh International Festival, my head is still spinning. How to make sense of an array of responses—on the one hand, horror, disappointment, indifference; on the other, sheer enchantment and intoxication?

Prior to the performance it was the programme that intrigued me. Pogorelich's evidently well-earned reputation for idiosyncrasy had dissuaded me from paying him attention, and I admit that I was expecting (with a measure of dread) some fey rubatista to turn up on stage. Instead, a tall man with closely-cropped hair, neither as slim as Richter nor as broad-shouldered as Donohoe, noticeably long-fingered, immaculately dressed in full tails, sat at the piano and proceeded to confound my expectations entirely.

Fey? Certainly not. Rubatista? What Pogorelich does is beyond rubato, and trying to figure out just what it is that he does will take some work. What was immediately striking, as he started into a glistening, mellifluous reading of the Chopin Nocturne, was a profound stillness of body. Nothing, absolutely nothing superfluous in the way of gesture, just an occasional lean into a chord near a fermata. And when he reached the conclusion, while the audience applauded, his first concern was to remove the score and replace it with the next one, only then turning, rising and taking a modest bow, seemingly anxious only to return the stool and resume the performance.

During the B minor sonata, his tremendous command of dynamic range, together with exquisite shading and grading of phrases and internal lines started to rub up against the realization that he seemed intent on systematically denying the listener any ordinary joy in the resolution of expectation—quite the opposite to the conventional rubato that seeks to linger and enhance the joy. Then it dawned that the motionlessness, the absence of flamboyance, accompanied a denial of intersubjectivity beyond the mere projection of seriousness, which started me thinking: what is the nature of the transaction in a recital? Something other than the ordinary relationship between grateful audience and gratified host seemed to be happening.

Almost the entire repertoire of solo piano music, after all, is the work of composers who played the instrument, something that perhaps makes the rhetorical content a little more personal, more like lyric poetry than, say, the making of a speech. Is the interpreter, then, to read aloud in good English, as it were? Or rather be more proactive, adopting Auden's ambivalent phrase about the way 'The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living', examining every word and phrase for undisclosed meaning?

These thoughts became more focused during Pogorelich's reading of the first Mephisto Waltz of Liszt. From the outset, the vibrant thrum of the dance master tuning his violin was strangely skewed: there was an abundant sense of vitality, but not of dance. The denial of intersubjectivity, here, amounting to a full-force resistance against the desire for visceral engagement with the innate motor rhythms of the waltz. In its place Pogorelich offered deep meditation, most notably in the central section, performed at an extraordinarily slow tempo. It put me in mind of the 'chopped and screwed' work of rap DJ Robert Earl Davis. Davis' trademark was to slow down tracks before sampling and remixing, creating an effect that reputedly recreated the narcotic effect of the drugs (prescription cough syrup being the key ingredient) consumed during the production process. It is also an effect that good poets create when reading their work in public (an effect that requires a live audience to achieve), when terms like 'enchanting' or 'spell-binding' substitute for 'narcotic'—somehow these seem appropriate terms for the Mephistophelian craft the music celebrates.

Similarly with the Valse Triste of Sibelius, a familiar work in an unfamiliar context. Being accustomed to the sweet, wistful lilt of Karajan's rubato in his celebrated orchestral interpretation, one might have felt it too trivial a work for Pogorelich, but, deconstructing again, this performance was virtually all 'triste', and virtually no 'valse'—though 'triste' barely scratches the surface of the haunted complexity his reading yielded.

By now, I was anticipating Le Gibet with relish. Amusingly, Roger Nichols' programme note mentioned a comment of Ravel's, that Ricardo Viñes 'had assured me that if he observed the nuances and speed I wanted, “Le gibet” would bore audiences to death'. If you've heard Ravel's own piano-roll version, Pogorelich's is slower! Slower, and deeply rich in nuance. To play at such speeds seems almost an affront in an age of impatience. Still, Le Gibet is framed by two outer movements in Gaspard de la Nuit that more than compensate: Ondine, a dazzle of surfaces and currents in Pogorelich's hands that curiously translates the Chopin nocturne into daylight, and the driving malevolence of Scarbo, echoing the mischief of Mephistopheles and rounding off the recital with a stupefying virtuoso flourish.

The end, though—the performance as a whole, in fact—reminded me strongly of last year's Istanbul Music & Sema, which straddled the worlds of ritual and performance with a similar sense of negotiation. So Pogorelich took the final applause in the same shy manner, and there was no encore.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Ivo Pogorelich


dervishRelated articles:

Concert Review: Istanbul Music and Sema Group at last year's Edinburgh Festival
Music Theatre review: St Kilda at the Edinburgh Festival
Concert Review: Martha Argerich at this year's Proms

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