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Chopin, Liszt, Sibelius, Ravel: Ivo Pogorelich (piano), Laeiszhalle Hamburg, 14.6.09 (TKT)

, Nocturne no. 18 in E major (op. 62/2) Sonata no. 1 in B minor (op. 58)
Liszt, Mephisto Waltz no. 1 in A major
Sibelius, Valse triste
Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit

When Yevgeny Kissin had to cancel his announced recital, the concert organizer managed the feat of engaging Ivo Pogorelich instead. Like Kissin, Pogorelich is a pianist who has taken extended breaks from the stage, though not only for reasons of finding his artistic center again but because of serious personal and health crises. The two also share their technical perfection (Pogorelich once listed it as the first of the four major lessons his piano teacher and wife had taught him - yet only a chosen few can learn that lesson so well).

Labeled a genius early on, he has lived up to this reputation for nearly 30 years, and it was as if he tried to reaffirm it from the very first moment he touched the piano: the sheet music placed on the stand, he started Chopin’s Nocturne in E major with so much weight and such a slow tempo that it was almost as if a piano player of minor talent were trying to sight-read an unknown piece. Obviously, this was perfectly deliberate: Pogorelich showed us that one of Chopin’s best known pieces is indeed yet to be discovered - by us. While there was nothing nocturnal about the forcefully played main theme, Pogorelich played the ornaments so weightlessly, he might as well have sampled a different instrument. Contrasts were a main theme of the entire evening, which also highlighted the contrapuntal element in Chopin’s music.

Pogorelich’s interpretation of Chopin’s last sonata for piano solo was similarly unorthodox. Written at a period in which the composer enjoyed relatively good health, this work exudes confidence and strength. Pogorelich played it almost like a soliloquy, with the pianist always in control of the music, mastering every nuance of touch. He analyzed as much as played the different themes, emphasizing the structure of the piece. The Scherzo was very playful, the Trio very heavy, and the Largo largissimo. Fascinating as it was, it did border on the boring at times. The Finale, however, is such a classical composition, Pogorelich’s unromantic approach brought out the sheer power of the music.

His rendition of Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz was also analytical. Pogorelich’s fingers can do anything he (though not necessarily the composer) wills them to do, and as a result of his reflective style, it was positively astonishing to learn how modern Liszt can sound - like a composer who was decades ahead of his time.

A couple of boos before the intermission did not come as a surprise, silly as it is to insist that we should always hear the things we know the way we know them rather than accepting a challenge. Yes, there was reason to wonder whether Pogorelich knows what the “triste” part in Sibelius’ piano transcription of his famous waltz really means, but hearing a new interpretation by a master pianist is an adventure.

Ravel, that intellectual but also emotional perfectionist, and Pogorelich - it sounds like a marriage made in heaven. Based on three prose poems by “Aloysius” Bertrand, a French E.T.A. Hoffmann of sorts, Gaspard de la Nuit is an extremely impressionistic work. Although Pogorelich played the first movement about the water nymph Ondine much slower not only than Ravel himself but than anybody else, not even death did the two part: you could virtually see that corpse swinging in Le Gibet (The Gallows), and the mischief committed by the goblin-like Scarbo of the third movement and the terror he spreads came to life in this brilliant interpretation.

Ivo Pogorelich is a “musician’s musician.” Listening to him is no doubt rewarding. It is also exhausting. The audience was in awe - but in the end didn’t mind that the concert was over. No encore was requested. And yet, what a memorable concert!

Thomas K Thornton

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