Ivo Pogorelich has been a legendary figure since the 80s, after the succèss de scandale at the International Chopin Competition in 1980 when Martha Argerich resigned from the jury to protest against the elimination of Pogorelich in the third round. Since then Pogorelich was catapulted to fame overnight and started his international pianist career. He has received requests to give concerts in major concert halls in the world, and has performed with world’s greatest orchestras including Boston Symphony and LA Philharmonic.
The Croatian pianist has been a controversial figure since he attained his fame. He is well known for his highly personal and eccentric playing and re-interpretation of masterpieces. He injects new energy and concepts into familiar works and highlights the contrasts with his profound understanding. Having performed in Hong Kong Cultural Centre in 1989 and 1997, the pianist now 56, presents to the Hong Kong audiences four long masterpieces with thoughtful interpretations.
Pogorelich began his heavy programme with Liszt’s so-called Dante sonata (Après une lecture de Dante, fantasia quasi sonata) and Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17. After the intermission, the second half features Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka and Brahms’s highly virtuosic variations on a theme of Paganini. Contrary to his favorite pitch-black hall with a spotlight, the concert hall was in full illumination throughout. He used printed scores for all four pieces. The young and enthusiastic page turner tried hard to follow Pogorelich’s pace, though he missed for a couple of times. Again, no encore was offered.
Pogorelich’s rendition of the Liszt’s piece could be considered as the fourth derivative of Dante’s Inferno, after Victor Hugo’s poem Après une lecture de Dante and Liszt’s piano piece of the same name. Pogorelich’s playing was rather slow, which was reminiscent of his usual sonata playing. In fact it was not slow for the fast running passages, but a drag in the slow tempo. He made full use of silence as if they were the reflective moments after reading Dante’s epic, while the temporal space in slow passages was used by him to build up tensions. The pianist exploited the wide palette of tone colors from the Steinway and manipulated the actual color of each note he played. Every sound was well considered and well controlled by artful skill. The contrasting color and tempo, as the music unfolded, led a journey to the tormenting hell and the joyous heaven of Dante. Pogorelich pushed the contrast to the extreme to juxtapose the scenery of the two worlds with his imagination and thoughtfulness. The brilliant passages over the high register against the heavy and stormy octave running from the left hand were indeed unforgettable. The pianist, as the traveler of the paradise and inferno, displayed his extraordinary insight into this esoteric piece.
Pogorelich’s rendition of Schumann’s Fantasy in C was less varied as Liszt’s piece, but still he had all kinds of colors from the piano at his disposal. The mild opening, contrary to Schumann’s markings of sforzando and fortissimo, anticipated the tender and love of Schumann to Clara Wieck in the piece. As before, the piece was slower than usual, yet the melody line was delicately shaped – some notes were so delicate that they were nearly inaudible. The second movement was a real surprise. Under the indication Etwas bewegter (somewhat pressing forward), the section was rather lingering. Lacking energetic motion pushing forward by the accents and contrasting dynamics, the passages were soft and expressive, captivating audiences with the emotional intensity and beauty of tone that went in the opposite direction of the march-like rondo. Such playing continued even to the scherzando section, filling the music with sincere moments rather than humor and playfulness. The pianist gave vivid and expressive readings of Schumann’s passion and lament to Clara. It ended in hazy instead of lucid arpeggios, leading to a meditative finale.
Pogorelich’s strength of chordal expression is best manifested in Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. His loud, slow and stormy chord progressions may have washed away the wit and liveliness of the puppets. Although to many it was a slow motion Petrushka, the puppet and the ballet were endowed with dramatic vivacity in another way. The piece is known for its technical difficulty. Under the surface of virtuosity, most importantly, is the variety of tones and colors. Petrushka is originally orchestral premiered in 1911. Stravinsky, with his flexibility in composition, rewrote sections of the piece in 1921 focusing on pianistic effects in order to attract Arthur Rubenstein to perform more of his music. Yet Pogorelich did not completely follow the orchestral tone in his rendition. Whereas there were imitations of the dry timbre from the winds and percussion, dark color from clarinets and bassoons, expressive flutes and piano passages, bold melodic lines of trombones or the grand tutti, some effects were totally pianistic. The third movement La semaine grasse was his showcase of spectacular pianistic tone colors that showed the contrasting dynamics and articulations and gave a vivid picture of this powerful drama.
Pogorelich further manifested his unsurpassed skill through Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Paganini in A Minor Op. 35, which was described by Clara Schumann as “Witches variations” for its technical difficulty. Brahms composed the two books of variations after meeting Carl Tausig, one of Liszt’s favorite young pupils, and dedicated the piece to him. The challenging piece includes a wide range of technical studies such as rapid octave passages, octave glissandi, octave tremolos, trills on wide-spread chords, hemiola rapid contrary motion of inner voices and so on. The figurations, during the variations, are often transferred from left hand to right and vice-versa. In addition to the precision and clarity, Pogorelich was able to display the contrast of mood in the variations and make use of the technical devices to reveal such contrasts. Some particularly remarkable parts were the trills in Book 1 Variation 4, the contrasting dynamics and octave tremolos in Book 1 Variation 9, the alternating leggiero and quasi pizzicato articulation in contrary motion in Book 2 Variation 8, and the rapid octave running in contrary motion while playing in non legato and scherzando in Variation 11.
There were only a few empty seats in the concert hall, after vigorous promotion by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (every two weeks’ email to the subscription list about the “Encore Series”). The recital was serious and contemplative, filling the evening with large-scale masterpieces. Audiences were quite calm – probably after these eloquent and serious pieces – but satisfied (I can imagine the dramatic contrast between audiences’ reaction of this concert and that of Lang Lang’s concert two weeks later in the same venue, though both pianists are considered as “eccentric”). When leaving the concert hall, I heard quite a number of young people, probably piano students, discussed Pogorelich’s piano techniques and showed their admiration towards him. Indeed, Mr Pogorelich had a lot to say in his music. The recital was a lesson for audiences, pianists and students about interpretation, style and individuality. What he left us were something for reflection - style, technique, mood and meaning.