Ivo Pogorelich A Film by Don Featherstone
DVD Region 0
Sound: PCM Stereo
rec. 1983 ARTHAUS MUSIK109165 DVD [52:00]
Let us be clear here. Anyone thinking they will learn much about this mercurial pianist from this documentary, particularly since the death of his wife in 1996, will be disappointed. Originally broadcast by LWT back in 1983, and narrated by Melvyn Bragg — presumably for the South Bank Show — this is from an entirely different era. On the other hand, anyone wishing to understand Pogorelich’s symbiotic relationship with Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit will be rewarded with a performance that shows why even today Pogorelich is still one of the most enigmatic musicians performing. I’ll address at the very end a question the New York Times once asked of the pianist: “Whatever happened to him?”
In part, 1996 is the critical year in Pogorelich’s decline and fall, or so the story goes. It was in that year that his wife, Aliza Kezeradze, died of liver cancer. The pianist has described their final kiss before she died as one soaked in “black blood”; as she began choking on her blood his hair became clotted with it. It’s an image worthy of Lorca, but also goes part of the way in explaining why he all but stopped playing the piano afterwards - a period he devoted to designing and making jewellery. They had met when Pogorelich was 18, she 13 years older than him, and newly arrived at the Moscow Conservatoire. Playing Chopin’s Sonata No.3 on a piano in an apartment he was met with a barrage of commentary about his playing, criticising among other things the tension in his hands. After little more than a dozen meetings Pogorelich proposed to her. Kezeradze’s musical pedigree, extending from Ziloti back through to Liszt, was based on four central tenets: total technical mastery of the instrument; a sound that extended from the human voice to the sonorities of the orchestra; a willingness to explore the range and possibilities of the piano as a modern instrument; and, embracing differentiation. First she corrected the “hooked” hands which she saw as limiting Pogorelich’s sound and technique, arguing as Liszt had how strength comes through the fingers and muscles; and when you watch him play it is remarkable how flat his hands are against the keyboard. Pogorelich, as taught by Kezeradze, caresses the keyboard; it’s a world away from his latter-day style of playing where he can seem to be battering the piano into submission. Whilst rehearsing Gaspard, Pogorelich talks abut Ravel’s unorthodox fingering, “dirt” as the pianist describes it, the way in which technique and teaching are subordinated to the composer’s wilful design to play two notes simultaneously so the fingers cross the keys – something, which as Pogorelich points out, pianists spend a lifetime avoiding doing.
Technique was something Pogorelich could afford to take for granted. Much closer in style to pianists like Horowitz, Hofmann, Richter and Cziffra than Schnabel, Gieseking, Michelangeli or Arrau his early performances were technically brilliant but interpretively they sharply divided opinion. This documentary was made just three years after his celebrated exit from the 1980 Chopin Competition — of which there is archive footage in the film — and it’s still, 35 years after the event, easy for purists of Chopin to see why that happened. Pogorelich’s tendency then, as now, to conflate Chopin’s Lento markings with pure loudness resonate with few pianists, but this in part goes back to Kezeradze’s emphasis on the piano and the voice being closely linked. It also speaks volumes about being different. The problem, however, became one of balance, or a lack of it, especially in the middle register, and in pieces like the Nocturne No.48, Op.1 markings like lento, pìu lento and doppio movimento sound as if they are all in the same tempo. That’s not to say Pogorelich couldn’t do astonishing things at the keyboard because he could – in the “Funeral March” of the B Flat minor, he shapes the crescendos and diminuendos so exquisitely so they actually come to resemble the footsteps of the mourners. A Pogorelich performance often had all the hallmarks of a great painting. With him you felt you were looking at a work of art; with other pianists, simply the brush-strokes to paint a piece of art. The enigma of Pogorelich the pianist is that one minute he will place accents on the wrong notes and change the entire meaning of dynamics and even rhythm, but the next will dash off an entire movement of running passages with flaring crescendos at a dazzling tempo that defies belief. Only Ivo Pogorelich could today open Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with an almost complete disregard for motion or time. In almost any other pianist’s hands the work just wouldn’t survive the tempo he starts the concerto at. However as Schnabel famously said, almost anyone can play the notes, it’s what you do between the notes that matters and here it’s where Pogorelich has few rivals. His Tchaikovsky First is simply seismic, and the first movement alone takes almost as long as some pianists take for the entire work. Such liberties with the score, which Pogorelich now takes, much as Richter did, have divided critics and audiences even more.
It was widely considered at the time of his exit from the 1980 Chopin Competition that his unconventional style had as much to do with the judges voting against him as his controversial pianism. Pogorelich in his interview with Bragg launches a defiant defence of individuality. Certainly over the years, his record company, Deutsche Grammophon, had no difficulty in photographing him in woolly jumpers, or silk scarves, or indeed leather trousers, presumably as long as he kept his handsome head of hair as well. Today, things are a little different. Pogorelich has been known to come onto the platform before a recital and sit at the piano as the hall fills up dressed in slippers, ski-hat and cardigan. Gone is his trademark head of hair now shorn to the most severe, razor-cut crop. Of everything we now know about Pogorelich, and of how his hair was matted and soaked in his wife’s blood, this perhaps makes the most sense of all.
Much of the rehearsal footage in this documentary is devoted to Ravel’s Gaspard, and the final 25 minutes of the film is given over to a complete performance of Pogorelich playing the work. The DG recording, which was coupled with a phenomenal version of Prokofiev’s Sixth (which Richter famously disliked), was recorded the same year and there is little to separate the two performances on either CD or film. They are both incendiary, though there is considerable value in seeing Pogorelich being able to play this work rather than in just hearing it. The technical difficulties of “Scarbo” are well documented — Ravel himself described the movement as being an “orchestral transcription” for the piano — but being able to see the beauty of Pogorelich’s technique at this time, how effortlessly he tackles the double-note scales in major seconds in the right hand, or the how distinctively Pogorelich makes the repeated notes sound. Ravel indicated that he wanted a kind of “scratchy” sound from the piano here, and if you listen to Michelangeli or François you get that. Listen to Pogorelich and the notes are attacked at almost a forte. This is the most terrifying and chilling performance of “Scarbo” that has ever been recorded, an undiluted nightmare of horror that Pogorelich achieves by almost carving the notes out of ice. Likewise, in “Le Gibet”, the sense of motionless, stasis and deathly hallows is achieved alone by Pogorelich’s hypnotic playing of the B-flat octave ostinato. Ravel himself made a recording of this movement partly to illustrate the point that it should be played slower than pianists at the time did play it. As both Pogorelich and Kezeradze say in the interview, they play it considerably slower than even Ravel did. The recording is a highpoint in this pianist’s discography, but whether you prefer it over recordings by Michelangeli (1959) or Samson François (or even Claudio Arrau in 1963) will come down to personal preference – and how interventionist (or creative) you think Pogorelich is in this masterpiece.
So, going back to the New York Times’ question of “Whatever happened to him?” the simple answer is that this documentary won’t tell you that. It’s difficult to say what his career would be like today if his personal life hadn’t evolved as tragically as it did after 1996. For every person intrigued by a Pogorelich performance, there is another infuriated by it; for those who think his is a talent fulfilled there are others who think his is a talent wasted. Until someone decides to make a better film about this pianist these and many more questions about him will remain unanswered.