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July 1, 2023

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‘Keyboard eccentric’ brings unique Chopin interpretation to Shanghai

He has the reputation of an “enfant terrible” of the keyboard. Croatian Ivo Pogorelich elicits both praise and brickbats with his often unconventional renderings of piano classics.

His recent return to Shanghai Concert Hall after a seven-year absence was no exception.

Pogorelich, 64, played an all Chopin concert in Shanghai last week, ending with a second encore of the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62.

Afterward, members of the audience debated the pianist’s interpretations as they waited to get him to sign their albums. Some loved his playing; others were less certain what to think.

In 1980, Pogorelich caused a stir at the International Chopin Piano Competition when a sharply divided jury decision eliminated him from the final round because of his unorthodox interpretation — a decision that went against audience opinion. One judge quit in protest.

Is Pogorelich just a new approach to Chopin or has he violated some basic, accepted norms in playing the great master? Is his playing something akin to the way Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, dubbed an eccentric in his lifetime, revolutionized thinking about how Bach should be interpreted in the 1980s?

Many music lovers in China wanted to judge for themselves.

When Pogorelich’s appearance in Shanghai was announced, tickets sold out within an hour. The pianist, often described as eccentric, has always preferred to call himself “a servant to the composer.”

“The idea is to be absolutely truthful to the composer,” he told Shanghai Daily before his Shanghai concert. “I’m not looking for something special just for myself. I’m looking for something special inside the music and inside the piano.”

Pogorelich played concerts in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Xi’an on his China tour in June.

He said he was particularly impressed to see very young people coming to his concerts.

“It was great surprise to see very young families with children,” he said. “The children are very disciplined in listening to a very long program. It’s all very charming.”

Half of the concert’s program comes from his new album, released last year — his first Chopin album in more than 20 years.

“The program includes some very late works of the composer,” Pogorelich explained. “He was already very ill at the time, in the last period of his life, so the program has also great personal and psychological elements inside.”

The program opens with the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61, written three years before Chopin’s death, and noted for its harmonic complexity and intricate form. It ends with the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, written around the same time and often considered to be one of the composer’s favorite and also more demanding compositions.

“It is a very large and complex program,” Pogorelich explained. “Many intimate moments in this program are played in very soft tones and very slow tempos. For the audience, it is a chance to hear some very intimate and very personal emotions. Sometimes there is a feeling that Chopin is improvising.”

Those who arrived at the concert early were able to catch a glimpse of the pianist, before he changed into a tuxedo, as he practiced on stage until 15 minutes for the start of the concert.

“You have to warm up the instrument,” Pogorelich explained, comparing it to dancers wrapped in blankets to keep the body warm before a performance or tables set before an elegant dinner.

“The piano, without the pianist, is just a piece of furniture,” he said. “So you have to bring it up to a condition, and your fingers have to stay with the piano until the last moment, to keep the contact,” he added.

“My profession is also very physical, so I have to be very protective of my body, very careful of what I eat, what I drink and how I sleep. It’s like a soldier’s life.”

Pogorelich began piano lessons when he was 7. He later continued his studies at the Moscow Conservatory.

He won music competitions in Italy and Montreal before the controversy at the International Chopin Piano Competition. In 1981, he made his debut recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and debuted in London that same year. Since then, he has played with some of the world’s leading orchestras.

Pogorelich’s repertory isn’t confined to Chopin. He has made recordings of the works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and other keyboard masters.


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