Ivo Pogorelich

Ivo Pogorelich


You can be sure something’s not quite right with the state of interpretation in the 21st century when a relatively conservative interpreter like Pogorelich is still considered the bad-boy of classical piano…

If you’ve ever composed, studied jazz or done even a bit of improvising, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The field of interpretation is still wide open for the creative, searching interpreter.

The 20th Century was a paradox for the interpreter.  It saw a string of wars of unprecedented violence and carnage and the birth of the techno-age.  Modern Art responded by exploring and pillaging every possibility of human expression, from the most conservative peace-loving minimalism to violent, vulgar and purely profane expressions of protest against humanity.  Each artist seemed to be out to out-wow his colleagues and predecessors. 

The world itself was questioning the existence of God on a massive scale and some seemed to turn to Classical music as a stand-in for Religion.  Interpreters took up the challenge and began seeing themselves as Monks and Priests of the faith.  The Urtext Age was born; Serialism became a moral obligation for composers.

Pogo sprang onto the scene, gaining fame for not winning a competition.  He seemed to present himself as a Priest of the Anti-establishment – yet he was preaching to the establishment and was ultimately of the establishment.  He reached out not to non-believers, but to believers of wavering faith or sinful tendencies. 


In a way, he was a post-modern throw-back to the pre-modern Golden Age of pianism.  He embodied Liszt’s slogan, Le concert, c’est moi.  But he wasn’t simply selling himself as an artist with a personal take on the repertoire.  He gave commentaries on urtext beliefs.  He deliberately provoked and taunted.

Something about him was decidedly different, and you couldn’t ignore him.  A large portion of the establishment decried him as a False Prophet and would have loved to revoke his performing license.   Others found him to be a breath of fresh air – a Pogo Cult emerged.  Few were lukewarm about him.

His approach to interpretation is essentially cubist.  He distorts and reinvents.  He tries to tell you what is by showing you what isn’t.  Or perhaps he simply tells you what isn’t… either way, the effect on the listener is the same.  Does he really believe some of his half-tempos?!  You find yourself wondering whether he’s rooted in genius or simply a little off center, or both.

But the pianism!  He left his detractors in a conundrum.  No matter what you believe about his interpretational abilities or beliefs, there’s no denying that he possesses a colossal technique, one of the most complete of the 20th century.   The polish and scope of his live performing is astounding.  I heard him live only once in a sold-out 4,000-seat hall.  The largeness of the space was appropriate to the largeness of his playing, and of his ego.

 Picasso: The Guitar Player

Picasso: The Guitar Player

He’s not a generally lovable player, but he’s a tone-poet and vexes you with spells.  He revels in making you hate and love him at the same time – a true prima donna in his own mind.

Many of his recordings are simply strange, off-the-mark.  Like his Liszt Sonata or Mussoursky Pictures at an Exhibition.  But even these are must-listens because of the extraordinary never-heard colors at every turn.  Some of his recordings, though, truly rate with the best of the century, like his (Ravel’s…) Gaspard de la nuit, Prokofiev 6th, and the Scarlatti album.  { It’s not Horowitz’ Scarlatti, but nears it. }  His Chopin B-flat minor Sonata will make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.  Willfully distorted, granted, but not less-so than Rachmaninoff’s legendary recording.

His distortions left such a mark on the scene that any pianist engaging in cubism is seen as imitating Pogorelich.  But distortion is such an important key to truth!  The possibilities to the 21st century interpreter are still wide open.  The 20th century has yet to happen in the world of interpretation.  It’s one of the final frontiers of Art.

Whether or not you have the courage or will to take distortion to the stage is between you and yourself, but distortion is a must in the practice room.  You have to explore the work you’re studying from every conceivable angle.  I pointed that out to one of my NY piano professors.  He said that he has too much to do already with what is to waste his time with what isn’t.  We didn’t last long together.

If you were a painter commissioned to paint a building as it looks from a certain angle at a certain time of day in a certain time of the year, would you spend hundreds of hours sketching and painting it over and over again to the exact specifications of the commission?  Would you not go out of your mind and lose perspective altogether?  How can you possibly perceive the light and shade and angles and colors without taking in the scene from every possible angle, real and imaginary?  You can only paint truth once you really know the subject. 

Interpretation is no different.  Often, by turning the object upside-down and inside-out, you’ll uncover hidden beauties, possibly even truth that evaded you.  Have the courage to take some of your discoveries to the stage.  Must you live in fear of shocking the listener?


Creative people who can't help but explore other mental territories

are at greater risk,

just as someone who climbs a mountain is more at risk

than someone who just walks along a village lane.

~ R. D. Laing