So, now my mind is back in the 80s and busily sifting through memories of many wonderful theatrical and musical experiences. Between 1978 and 1985, I usually spent four or five nights a week at some Lonodn theatre or other; these days I prefer a plate of steamed veggies and a dvd. How things change.
I was at music college when the shit hit the fan at the 1980 Warsaw Piano Competition. Ivo Pogorelich, the boy Martha Argerich dubbed ‘a genius’, was placed third by the panel of judges, much to Madame Argerich’s disgust, but had his revenge by going on to become one of the most talked-about pianists of his generation. As I’ve completely forgotten who actually won the Warsaw that year, losing seems to have been a pretty good game-plan.
I was lucky enough get tickets to sit in the orchestra for his Festival Hall debut in 1982. The place was packed, not a seat to be had, and I must say, he gave an astounding performance. Tall, a bit gangly and thin, but very romantically beautiful, not only could I not unglue my eyes from his physical form, what I heard was so intense and unexpected that I could barely breathe. It was all so strong and in-your-face. But there’s no real point in trying to describe in words how he played back then, especially when it’s so easy for you to hear for yourself.
He was also ‘interesting’. All kinds of gossip flew around about his relationship with his piano teacher, who was thirty years older than him (I think he was in his early 20s) and whom he later married. She died a couple of years ago of liver disease. One journalist wrote that as her husband bent down to kiss her good bye, her liver burst, plastering him in her blood. She was dead. And he didn’t wash for days…
Anyway, his debut was stunning. The programme included some Boulez, which I couldn’t be much bothered with, and his supremely muscly interpretation of Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. I bought the recording the moment I left the concert hall, on credit, naturally, then played it dry.
Ten years later I travelled up to Oxford to hear him at the Bodleian Library. There, instead of the beautiful boy I’d fallen for so heavily a decade before, I found a vile, fat, sycophantic alien who, lacking any semblance of musical aspiration, sneered smugly at his audience then beat the piano into submission with laser-like precision. I endured his Mozart, but left before he started flagellating anything else I loved.
Richter didn’t like him at all. Or at least, he didn’t like his early recordings—I don’t think he ever heard him play in the flesh. I wonder, though, if it was really the wife he didn’t like. I think she turned up on his doorstep to promote her protégé husband and extract some kind of endorsement from him, which, naturally, he twigged immediately and as a result took against her before she’d even opened her mouth. He wrote in his notebook that the boy didn’t understand Beethoven at all. But I loved the Op. 111 recording, and the Schumann (as I’ve already mentioned), and his Gaspard la Nuit was quite astounding.
Pogorelich has played in Berlin since I’ve been here, or at least, advertisements pasted in the U-bahn have announced, optimistically, that he’d been booked at the Philharmonie, or the Konzerthaus, or somewhere. But as far as I can tell he cancels more often than he actually plays. Nevertheless, when the Konzerthaus wrote to me this week saying there were a couple of tickets left for his concert next Tuesday, I snapped them up immediately.
The thing is I really want to love him again. I want to reinstate him in my pantheon of ‘greats’. And that’s why I seized the tickets with such eagerness. So, as part of my attempt to rehabilitate the now Croatian musical superstar, here’s a clip from youtube of one of the pieces he played during his controversial performance at the Warsaw Competition. It’s one of Chopin’s virtually-impossible-to-play Scherzos, and I think this recording shows just how keenly he fingers the keys. My great hope is that the 50 year old Ivo will have rubbed off a few of the sharper corners that afflicted the 30 year old. Let’s see.