Ivo Pogorelich’s father played the double bass in a Belgrade orchestra, and the young Ivo was taken to the opera from the age of six, beginning piano lessons a year later. At thirteen he was sent to Moscow to study with Yevgeny Timakhin at the Central Music School. He then went to the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with two pupils of Heinrich Neuhaus, Vera Gornostaeva and Evgeny Malinin. However, Pogorelich was not happy at the Conservatory, finding many of the classes boring; the Conservatory in turn was not over-impressed by Pogorelich. At seventeen he was heard by Alice Kerzeradze who told him he was squandering his talent. Pogorelich began private lessons with Kerzeradze concurrently with his studies at the Moscow Conservatory. Upon his graduation he claimed that he had learnt nothing at the Conservatory and everything from Kerzeradze. At twenty-two he married Kerzeradze who was fourteen years his senior and had a six-year-old son.
By 1980, although he had toured America and won the Montreal International Piano Competition, when he entered the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw Pogorelich was still virtually unknown. His playing in, and subsequent elimination from, the Competition was the start of his international career. Awarded a special prize by the Association of Music Critics in Poland for his new approach to playing Chopin and his ‘exceptionally original pianistic talent’, and supported by Martha Argerich, who, declaring him ‘a genius’, resigned from the jury in protest, Pogorelich caused a stir that resounded throughout the musical world. He was extremely popular with the public, and his supporters in Warsaw arranged for him to give a special recital. He was signed to Deutsche Grammophon, selling 100,000 copies of his debut Chopin recital disc in three days, and received requests to give concerts from the major musical capitals of the world. He played in New York in May 1981, in London during the same month, and stood in for an ‘indisposed’Martha Argerich at London’s Festival Hall in June playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Seiji Ozawa. From then Pogorelich continued a successful international career playing in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. He has performed with the world’s greatest orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony and the Philharmonia.
Pogorelich has always been a controversial figure. His playing attempts to view music in a new light, to strip it of preconceptions of style and performance tradition. With a sterling technique he approaches familiar works, studies them deeply for a long period, and forms an interpretation based on the ideas of Kerzeradze featuring extremes of dynamics, highlighting of contrasts, variety of touch, and clarity of articulation.
Seen by some as iconoclastic, Pogorelich’s concerts are certainly never boring since he always has something new to say about familiar works. His performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at his London debut was thrilling, dynamic and exciting. It was a brilliant debut with William Mann writing in The Times, ‘Pogorelich’s technique is a joy to listen to, complete efficiency, an amazing range of nuance and tone-colour, as well as a musical intelligence to keep the ear all the time on the qui vive.’ Indeed, his early performances were keenly awaited musical events. The way he could spin out the slow movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 to the point of almost hypnotising his audience was extraordinary, but it must be said that part of the Pogorelich appeal was due, for some at least, to his arresting physical appearance. Listening to recordings of those early live performances today, when this part of his appeal is no longer important, it can be said that he gave extraordinary performances that were enjoyed by a great many people. During the 1980s his concerto repertoire was extremely small; he played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Op. 26, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23. He also played César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques and in the 1990s added Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 to his repertoire, but by this time things had changed. Apart from Chopin, at the beginning of his career he also played Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13 and Toccata Op. 7, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.
Pogorelich gained a reputation as an arrogant person who played the piano the way he wanted, had few good words to say about fellow pianists, and even fewer about his critics. As the years progressed and his repertoire expanded slowly, more and more exaggeration crept into his performances and his speeds seemed to be extreme for no apparent reason; yet his supporters continued to laud interpretations that were seen by some as enlightened, and by others as misguided. Whatever he does, he does with conviction, but an extraordinary performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Alexander Lazarev at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1999 seemed to have pushed the music beyond its limits even by Pogorelich’s standards. The London audience booed Pogorelich: his response was, ‘It was a very positive reaction.’ Hilary Finch had heard no audience reaction like it in London in twenty years of concert attendance and ended her review, ‘Once merely eccentric, Pogorelich is now egomaniacally perverse, playing with contemptuous and contemptible disregard for both the score and his fellow musicians, and distorting the music out of all recognition.’ Further performances of the same work in America received opposing reviews. One critic described it as ‘mutilated beyond recognition’, but another wrote, ‘Pogorelich coaxed and stretched Rachmaninov’s lyrical masterpiece in magical ways.’ It is these opposing views that caused audiences, even in London, to boo or cheer, depending on their allegiance. However, Pogorelich is an artist with a huge talent and at times he can give performances that are quite astonishing as he did when he played Balakirev’s Islamey as an encore in London in the late 1990s. It was a truly remarkable performance.
From the mid-1980s Pogorelich was involved in many charitable pursuits. He established a Young Musicians’ Fellowship in Croatia to finance scholarships for the study abroad of talented artists and inaugurated a music festival at Bad Worishofen in Germany. He was also the first classical musician to have been appointed an Ambassador of Goodwill by UNESCO for his continuing efforts on behalf of young people, and has been made a Fellow-Commoner of Balliol College, Oxford in gratitude for his support of the College’s Centenary Appeal. In December 1993 Pogorelich set up a piano competition bearing his name in Pasadena, California which searches for the highest standards of piano playing and gives an unusually high prize of $100,000. Although planned as a triennial event, the competition was prevented from continuing by the death of Kerzeradze in 1994.
Until the mid-1990s Pogorelich gave around eighty concerts per season, but as the millennium approached, he gave fewer. It was sad to read a report in International Piano magazine in the summer of 2001 in which his publicist stated that he was unwell and suffering from a nervous condition and would not be playing in public for a year. It is to be hoped that he will make a full recovery, as Pogorelich has a great talent for the piano, and his unorthodox and individual voice needs to be heard.
Pogorelich’s Warsaw concert of Chopin from 31 October 1980 was issued on two LPs by Capriccio and on one compact disc (minus the Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35). The repertoire is similar to his first disc for Deutsche Grammophon with the exception of the Ballade No. 2 Op. 38 and three Mazurkas Op. 59. His next solo disc was of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111 plus Schumann’s Études Symphoniques Op. 13 and Toccata Op. 7. The Études are given an introspective reading, whilst the Toccata displays Pogorelich’s extraordinary technique. His next disc contained one of the best performances of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit ever committed to disc. Pogorelich finds all the fantasy and wonder in these pieces that are so strongly linked with the poems that inspired them, and the clarity of his technique is amazing. He was the subject of London Weekend Television’s art showcase programme The South Bank Show at this time, and in the documentary he is featured working on this repertoire with Kerzeradze. He recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 with Claudio Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but when he came to record Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the two musicians disagreed over the interpretation, so the recording was eventually conducted by Abbado with the London Symphony Orchestra. It is a good performance, but does not catch the excitement that was generated by the same forces in a live performance at the time. Pogorelich then turned his attention to Bach and recorded the second and third English Suites. These are performances somewhere between Glenn Gould and Mieczysław Horszowski, with perfect articulation and fast tempos contrasted with beauty of tone and rhythmic freedom in the slower movements. It was then four years before his next disc of Chopin’s Préludes Op. 28 appeared. After a disc containing the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor and an excellent performance of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor Op. 19, Pogorelich turned to previous eras and recorded discs of music by Haydn, Scarlatti and Mozart. His disc of Brahms divided the opinion of the critics yet again. Donald Manildi in the American Record Guide began, ‘Not to mince words, these performances are a disgrace… His approach here goes far beyond legitimate interpretative license into the realm of sheer perversity.’ The Gramophone rather blandly stated, ‘On the evidence of this new issue, he is interesting in this composer’s music rather than authoritative.’ Pogorelich’s last two discs were of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition coupled with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and a disc containing the four scherzos by Chopin.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).