Release Date: 2015

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Other artists: London Symphony Orchestra,

Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

Project Management: David Butchart

Total playing time: 14 CDs [08h 23min]

Copyright: © 2015 Deutsche Grammophon



When Deutsche Grammophon released a double CD titled The Genius of Pogorelich in 2006, the accompanying documentation featured not the usual booklet but a poster showing a good-looking youth with dark eye-brows and dark hair, wearing jeans and trainers and sitting nonchalantly, with a vaguely melancholic expression in his eyes. Anyone not knowing that this was a photograph of the young Ivo Pogorelich might have been forgiven for thinking that the sitter was a member of a boy band. By the same token, the image on the front of the present box may also reveal a little more of the phenomenon that is Pogorelich. In 1980 he conquered the world of music in part by means of his unusual and highly controversial performances, but also by appealing to a far wider public than the traditional fans of classical music, an appeal that he owed to his fashionably cool appearance. And while some observers hailed him as a new star in the classical musical firmament, others suspected that he was a shooting star who would very soon burn himself out. But Pogorelich, who was born in Belgrade on 20 October 1958, is now fifty-six years old and as controversial as ever. Even so, many of his recordings currently enjoy the status of benchmark interpretations. The youthful rebel has become a point of reference, a process that seems to have taken place without anyone noticing.

Until the summer of 1980 Ivo Pogorelich’s career had been unspectacular: the son of a Croat double-bass player, he was seven when he started to play the piano. Five years later he received a state scholarship that allowed him to study in Moscow. At the age of sixteen he transferred from the Central School of Music to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Among his teachers were Evgeny Timakin, Vera Gornostayeva and Yevgeny Malinin. But it was not until 1977 that he metthe pianist who was to give his life a new sense of direction and influence his music-making for almost two decades: Aliza Kezeradze (1937–96) had been a pupil of a pianist who in turn had been taught by Alexander Ziloti, who for his part had studied with Liszt. The two met at a party in Moscow. In an interview that he gave to Matthias Nother of the Berliner Morgenpost in January 2014, Pogorelich recalled: “I’d been playing the piano a little when she came over to me and said that I should hold my hands differently. I looked at her, dumbfounded.” According to Nöther, Pogorelich sensed at once that this woman could teach him things that he had not learnt during his six years with a whole series of eminent teachers in Moscow. “I was ready to change the position of my hands for the fourth time in my career. Some months later we sat down together for the first time to work through a Beethoven sonata. We managed to get through four bars in three hours.”

Pogorelich’s senior by twenty-one years, Aliza Kezeradze married her pupil in 1980 and set him on the road to success. He had already won the 1978 Alessandro Casagrande Competition in the Italian city of Terni and two years later won the International Musical Competition in Montreal. But it was a competition that he failed to win that made Pogorelich internationally famous. This was the 1980 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. With his idiosyncratic readings of Chopin that were dismissed by one critic as “eccentric”, Pogorelich had not even reached the final round, in which competitors were required to perform a concerto. Martha Argerich – herself an icon of piano playing – reacted by resigning from the jury with the words: “He’s a genius!” This undoubtedly helped Pogorelich to become far better known than would ever have been the case if he had won the competition. He was invited to give concerts and recitals all over the world, since everyone wanted to hear the “musical revolutionary”. And Deutsche Grammophon, which had traditionally signed up the winner of the competition – previous laureates included Pollini, Argerich and Zimerman – decided on this occasion to pin its hopes on a man who was soon to become the most prominent pianist ever to lose the competition.

Understandably, DG launched its new star with an all-Chopin programme. In the space of only two days Pogorelich recorded a Prélude, a Nocturne, three Études, the op. 39 Scherzo and, as the high point of his recital, the B flat minor Sonata op. 35. The sessions took place in the Herkulessaal in Munich’s Residenz on 7 and 8 February 1981. The recording divided the army of critics. Pogorelich’s interpretation of the B flat minor Sonata is a good example of his unique way with Chopin. Its opening movement is successful in an alarmingly original way: there is probably no other pianist who has brought out the contrast between the first and second subjects as powerfully as Pogorelich. He brings tremendous virtuosity to the agitato section. The quavers in the right hand, which are divided up by rests, are played much shorter than by any of his famous colleagues. Before Pogorelich no one had heard this theme played in such a harried, breathless and expressive manner. And it is not only in the opening movement that he serves notice of such stupendous virtuosity, for his octaves and chords in the Scherzo are the very essence of a bravura technique. And in the moto perpetuo of the final Presto he seeks out lines of development and points on which to set his sights without having to compromise in terms of the speed with which he despatches the triplet octaves. Pogorelich’s Chopin is distinguished by its consummate technique, by its noble sonorities and above all by the grandeur of the pianist’s musical imagination. He has never been obsessed by a concern forthe details of the Urtext, with the result that he not only eschews all the repeats in the sonata but, whenever it seems meaningful for him to do so, he shows a magnificent disregard for Chopin’s dynamic markings.

Chopin plays a central role in Pogorelich’s discography. For his third LP, which he recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Claudio Abbado in 1983, he once again caught his listeners’ attention with his extremely broad use of rubato in the composer’s Second Piano Concerto. His final CD for Deutsche Grammophon immortalized his reading of Chopin’s four Scherzos, which according to Michael Stenger, writing in Fono Forum, constituted a “quite literally rousing interpretation that surpasses those of his rivals since paw and poetry form an ideal pair”. His most famous Chopin recording, however, dates from 1989, for there can surely be no other pianist capable of coaxing as many facets and colours from Chopin’s twenty-four Préludes op. 28 as Pogorelich, an ability due in no small part to his very free tempos and to a highly personal approach that takes surprising liberties with articulatory details.

Ivo Pogorelich’s recordings for Deutsche Grammophon may not have been very numerous but they certainly cover a wide stylistic range, extending, as they do, from Bach and Scarlatti to Mozart and Haydn and from Beethoven to Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin. All of them date from the years between 1981 and 1995. And all of them can still give rise to lively debate: not one of his interpretations can leave its listeners cold. And all stand out from the multitude of faceless and nameless standard recordings. This is due in part, of course, to the fact that Pogorelich’s pianism is above average. When he plays a pianissimo, it is as gentle as a summer breeze, while his fortissimo has power and volume. The number of subtle differences in terms of his dynamics and articulation, which range from a stabbingly sharp staccato to a finely etched portato and to a singing legato, seems to know no limits in his recordings.

All of these qualities emerge to exemplary effect from his finely measured recordings of the music of Bach and Scarlatti. His Scarlatti – sometimes brilliantly playful, at other times sicklied over with melancholy – is in every way worthy of taking its place alongside Horowitz’s famous interpretations; it may be added in passing that in Pogorelich’s view Horowitz was one of the few pianists from whom it is possible to learn anything. And, reviewing Pogorelich’s Bach CD, the critic Klaus Bennert rightly observed: “With its highly stylized dances, its expressive gestures and its emotions, the world of Bach’s suites manifestly finds Pogorelich not only on territory that is close to his heart but also at the very peak of his pianistic and interpretative abilities.”

No less worthy of repeated hearings are Pogorelich’s Ravel recordings, the sensuous sonorities of which are occasionally positively intoxicating. And his recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata finds the pianist at the very pinnacle of his powers. Here he eschews all trace of brutality, without ever belittling the strident contrasts in a work that was completed in February 1940. His ability to bring out the subtlest sonorities in a piece is as overwhelming here as it is in his lyrical and cantabile Brahms interpretations.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are taken incredibly slowly and again reveal the pianist taking great liberties with a score that he paints in myriad colours. And the hero of Liszt’s famous B minor Sonata has rarely sounded so inwardly torn as in the hands of the Croatian titan. Even the extreme tempos adopted by Pogorelich in both slow and quick passages bear the pianist’s distinctive imprint.

In his book Great Pianists of Our Time (1982 edition), Joachim Kaiser wrote as follows about Ivo Pogorelich: “What matters is not what he can do, for this is only the beginning. What matters is how many ideas occur to him and how much he can demand of the music and of himself. In short, he is an artist who must be taken seriously, a hugely talented pianist who radiates an extraordinary fascination. In a word, he is exciting.” In the light of the recordings assembled here, there is nothing that can be added to this.

© Gregor Willmes / Deutsche Grammophon