The sound of Ivo Pogorelich

Nguyen Dinh Dang

It was raining after Ivo Pogorelich’s recital at Suntory Hall on the night of May 9. On the way from the concert hall to the subway station, I was walking behind two middle-aged female spectators. The Western lady told her Japanese companion in a loud voice, as if she also wanted to be heard by passersby:

Boom, boom! No, not my type of piano playing!


During this tour in Japan, Ivo Pogorelich performed in 3 cities: Kanazawa, Nagoya, and Tokyo. Both concerts in Tokyo took place in the main hall of Suntory Hall. This complex (opened in 1986) is one of seven first-class concert halls in the world designed in the vineyard style.  The capacity of the main hall, with 2,006 seats situated around the stage, ranks fourth after the Berliner Philharmonie (2,440 seats), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2,265 seats), and the Sapporo Concert Hall (2,008 seats). The legendary German conductor Herbert Von Karajan called the hall “a jewel box of sound”. The founder and financial supporter of the construction of Suntory Hall was Mr. Keizo Saji (1919-1999), chairman of whiskey distiller Suntory Ltd., a Japan leading industrialist and an ardent admirer of classical music.

Tokyoites waiting at the entrance to the Suntory Hall before Ivo Pogorelich’s concert on May 7.

On the first night (Monday, May 7), Pogorelich performed Chopin’s two Piano Concertos with Sinfonia Varsovia under the baton of Kazufumi Yamashita. The second night (Wednesday, May 9) was a recital. Pogorelich played the “Funeral March” Sonata (Op 35 No 2 in B flat minor), and the Nocturne Op 48 No 1 (in C minor) by Chopin, as well as the Mephisto Waltz No 1 S 514 and the Second Piano Sonata S. 178 (in B minor) by Liszt. I booked tickets to both concerts in late March. It turned out that I was over-concerned: The ticket office was open until the last minute before the performance. About half of the seats in the main hall remained vacant for both concerts.

In any case, an advantage of booking well in advance was that one could get a good seat at a good price. I sat in the fourth row behind the orchestra on the pianist’s side so I could clearly see Pogorelich’s hands. Some articles had said that Pogorelich’s concerts were often strange, that he asked to have the concert hall completely dark except some soft light to illuminate his fingers, that he even yelled at the audience when they made noise, etc. I could now confirm this with my own eyes. Entering the concert hall half an hour before the concert begun, I saw maestro Ivo Pogorelich onstage, in a skiing hat, sport jumper, and slippers, sitting in front of the Steinway grand, slowly practicing a few passages from the works he was to perform. He played very softly, as if he was searching for the sound. Sometimes he played a note, then tilted his head to listen to the reverberation. Occasionally he directed his glazed eyes, starring at the audience, which was filling the hall.  From time to time he picked up a plastic bottle of mineral water from the floor, opened with his right hand and drunk from it, while continuing to play by his left hand. Ten minutes before the concert started and only after being reminded twice by a female employee of Kajimoto Music (his concert agent in Japan), the maestro reluctantly stood up and drowsily went backstage.


Ivo Pogorelich appeared as a bright comet shooting across the classical music sky more than three decades ago. At the 10th Chopin international piano competition in Warsaw in 1980, the interpretation of Chopin by the then 22 year-old Yugoslavian stirred up controversy in the jury. After Pogorelich was excluded from the final round, the renowned Martha Argerich stormed out, saying she was ashamed to be a member of a jury that eliminated a genius. Some other jury members declared to quit as well. The competition was interrupted for 48 hours, risked collapsing, until the president of Poland intervened to convince the jury members to stay. There are unconfirmed sources as well as some evidence indicating that the elimination of Pogorelich had been orchestrated by Moscow [1, 2]. But, at the same time, this exclusion has launched Pogorelich to overnight international stardom. The reputable Deutsche Grammaphon signed a lucrative recording contract with him. A year later, he debuted at New-York Carnegie Hall, followed by his London debut. Since then he has played recitals as well as with leading orchestras such as Boston, London, Chicago Symphony orchestras, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic. In any case, to be excluded from the Chopin competition 32 years ago has probably been one of the two most profound pains in his life. At a press conference, held right after his elimination, he said: “I’ve come here to initiate a new direction in the interpretation of Chopin music.” But, as he later disclosed, the elimination was a big disappointment for him. The second suffering, which occurred when his wife and teacher Aliza Kezeradze died in 1996, led him into a state of depression. As a result, he withdrew from public performances for several years. However, Ivo Pogorelich has remained among the most renowned pianists in the world for the last three decades. Some even asserted that, after hearing Pogorelich, the legendary Vladimir Horowitz said: “I can now die in peace.”


Applause emerged as Pogorelich and conductor Yamashita walked out on stage. After a quarter-hour, Pogorelich had transformed himself from the outlook of a backpacking tourist into a tall elegant gentleman with a melancholic face and shaved head, wearing a noble black swallow-tailed coat. He bowed slowly, and then put his music on the rack. Most soloists perform from memory. Few exceptional people look at the music when playing in public, no matter if they had played it hundreds of times. Besides Pogorelich, to my knowledge, at least one more pianist did so: the enigmatic Sviatoslav Richter. The chamber-style orchestra, consisting of 15 musicians from Sinfonia Varsovia, sat in front of the piano. Sinfonia Varsovia came from the Polish Chamber Orchestra, which later expanded and took its present name to play with Yehudi Menuhin when he was invited to perform in Poland in 1984. Menuhin later commented that “work with no other orchestra had given him as much satisfaction as his work, as conductor and soloist, with the Sinfonia Varsovia.”

The first movement of Concerto No. 1, Allegro maestoso, has a quite long orchestral introduction, 138 bars, leaving the audience waiting for the first chords of the piano. And here they came, “Mi, re#-mi-sol, si, si, si“. The two last chords are written in the score as two arpeggios, but the unusually large hands of Pogorelich grasped all the notes at once. Fast passages went up and down like lightning, while slow protracted melodies seemed to last forever. The thunderous forte sometimes made me feel as if the entire ceiling of Suntory Hall were about to collapse. The light piano in high registers sounded like a morning breeze rippling the bamboo leaves. I’ve never heard anyone, including Vladimir Horowitz, who had such powerful fortissimos as well as such light pianissimos. Yet the forte by Pogorelich was not harsh, but as dark as an unfathomably deep abyss, while his crescendos surged like ocean waves of tremendous energy. Reaching the climax, they transfigured into a tsunami running over the dyke and submerging everything in its path. Even the lightest running passages had every note clear, sparkling like dew drops, like pearls, diffracting rainbow rays, interchanging light and shadow in one phrase. Chopin’s music in Pogorelich’s interpretation was revealed as mysterious chiaroscuro masterpieces by Rembrandt, full of contrasts, rich in gradations. In the heavy and tenebrous bass by his left hand, one even felt the breathing of rock music.

A traditional interpretation may create an eye-pleasing painting, when looking from a distance, but for the detailed scrutiny a viewer needs to get closer to it, sometimes using a magnifying glass to observe. In the interpretation by Pogorelich the audience could simultaneously see both the overall composition as well as the details. Large bright and dark masses appeared together with folds of draperies, highlights on encrusted stones earrings, necklaces, and the teardrop in the corner of the eyelid.

Was it still Chopin? Of course, the music was still by Chopin. Throughout the two concertos, to my ears, Pogorelich made only one wrong note. But he changed almost the entire means of expression; tempo, dynamics, articulations, ornaments, sometimes even rhythms. For example, in the last movement (Rondo – Vivace) of Concerto No. 1, the double appoggiatura at bars 173, 181, 189, 203, and in the repetition, at bars 417, 425, 433, 447, was played together with the principal note as a triplet with the accent on the first note. Like an artist, who despises the surface “likeness” and instead tries to draw a portrait, where the face of the model is seen from different sides at once, Pogorelich expanded musical ideas into series, sequences, and pulled out of the running passages the underlying melodies in a multidimensional space of multifaceted music.

To some, like my piano teacher, this multitude of changes is equivalent to transforming the work into another piece of music. Yes, if you are looking for a “traditional” ear-pleasing Chopin, you will certainly be disappointed when hearing Pogorelich. At least, you should look for those, who won prizes at international piano competitions, in particular the Chopin competition in Warsaw, where a standard and a criterion have been set for musical aesthetics. There is a long list of such pianists. Since 1927, the Chopin competition alone has produced, 15 first prize, 17 second prize, 17 third prize winners, not to mention numerous 4th – 6th prizewinners. But, after all, who are we to judge and dictate how Chopin should be perceived and felt by others?

When Pogorelich finished Concerto No. 2, “Bravo” shouts including women’s voices emerged from all sides on the background of thundering applauses. There were 7 curtain calls but Pogorelich did not offer any encores.

Onstage at Wednesday’s recital, carrying the sheet music in his hands, he put the first piece, Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 on the rack, throwing the rest flat onto the floor, at the left side of the piano.

Sviatoslav Richter mentally counted up to 30 before playing the first note. Vladimir Horowitz used to stare at the audience, winked at someone he knew, and then started. Arturo Michelangeli sat still as if he was exorcising before laying his fingers on the keyboard. Pogorelich immediately attacked “Re – mi mi ” by his left hand, without keeping the audience waiting. His fingers produced a storming Grave – Doppio movimento. But this is a storm in the soul of a 54-year old man who had experienced great suffering. It boiled in the murky depths, not outpouring with furious angst as in the way he played at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw 32 years ago. In the “Funeral March“, the sublime crescendo and diminuendo basses in B flat minor created the background of the mourners’ steps. Hovering above this somber marching is the wailing D flat major lament, which Pogorelich played in a transparent and torment singing voice.  The final movement of the sonata ran at a dazzling speed with an ending as surprising as the beginning.

Nocturne op. 48 no. 1 has generally been considered as one of Chopin’s greatest emotional achievements. The critic Kleczythenski said that the middle section of this nocturne “is the tale of a still greater grief told in an agitated recitando; celestial harps come to bring one ray of hope, which is powerless in its endeavor to calm the wounded soul.” Yet even with this nocturne, Pogorelich’s playing was also completely different from the conventional style. The Lento with loud chords in the bass and accent on soprano notes was crawling so slowly that the whole mezza voce in the common understanding vanished. Suddenly the eyes refused to close to allow the ears to follow the familiar melodious music, and the mind could not help wondering why he played in such a strange way. He played all three parts, lento, pìu lento and doppio movimento at approximately the same tempo. The end of the first section is written in the text as tense and powerful. But this maestro, the 5th generation from Liszt and 7th from Beethoven by the direct “master-pupil” line, who knows the secrets of correct reading [2], did quite the opposite: He played it very softly. The semiquaver triplets sounded marvelous with his unparalleled crescendo, which was rumbling from a whisper and dark tone and flared in a bursting sound.

Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz describes an episode from Faust by Nikolaus Lenau. Dr. Faust is a theologian, physician, and a renowned mathematician who made a deal with Satan, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. After 24 years, when the contract expires, Satan comes and tears Faust apart, splashing blood all over the house. In Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Mephistopheles and Faust pass by a wedding in a village inn, where, following Lenau, “Mephistopheles snatched the fiddle from the hands of a lethargic fiddler and drew from it indescribably seductive and intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirled about with a full-blooded village beauty in a wild dance; they waltzed in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the fiddle grew softer and softer, and the nightingale warbled its love-laden song.” The Mephisto Waltz in Pogorelich’s interpretation sounded like an orchestra. His long and strong fingers plunged into the keyboard like the claws of a beast that pierces its prey, plowing up a demonic gamut, full of profuse timbres of strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, with such a power that I never felt before, except a tiny correlation with that of Vladimir Horowitz.

During these two nights, Pogorelich seemed to have brought me wandering from the Baroque paintings in two concertos, through classicism, romanticism in the Chopin’s sonata and nocturne, to surrealism in Mephisto Waltz and analytic cubism in the sonata by Liszt.

The last notes of this 35-page sonata were played detachedly as if they were coming from very far away. Ending the sonata, he held his finger on the lowest B until long after the sound had completely faded off.

The immense hall sank into a silence, no coughing, no rustling, not even breathing. It looked like the whole audience held its breath.

A seemingly absolute silence.

A silence that deemed dull even John Cage’s 4’33”.

A silence of Death.

Ivo Pogorelich and his fans after the concert on May 7. See also a video footage here.


For someone who has mastered the most complex techniques of the art of piano playing since the age of 16, and studied at the Moscow Conservatory for five years just to listen to “how one should not play” [3], playing the piano in the way as the majority does is as easy as running a scale. But Pogorelich has changed from “being a good but ordinary pianist into something exceptional” [4]. Ivo Pogorelich in the modern pianism is like Pablo Picasso in painting, who at the age of 12 was drawing like Raphael, but refused to go the old ways to paint “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “La Guernica”, which until now many people still cannot “digest”.

If nature was just an excuse for Rembrandt and Picasso to create their masterpieces, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Balakirev, etc. are perhaps just serving as the sources, from which Pogorelich draws sounds and expression of his own. His musical interpretation is his masterpiece and personality as an artist, unprecedented and unequaled.

Hence, the fact that the Suntory Hall was only half filled during his two concerts is not surprising. An ordinary person comes to music and arts through education and therefore is easily conditioned by what the mainstream considers good. The human consciousness always compares what it sees and hears with things seen and heard before, now remaining in memory. This database is always accompanied by the standards of beauty that people are taught and learned to admire. Enjoying arts and music ceases to be unprejudiced and disinterested because of this educational and cultural background. People do not like Chopin in Pogorelich’s interpretation, not because of his sounds, which have a profound sonority, or his technique, which is transcendental, but because he plays Chopin in a completely different way. To many listeners, Pogorelich’s playing is too daring, too innovative, like a revolution, while what they want is just a “reformed” style with cosmetic improvements mainly on technique. These improvements should not deviate strongly from the “Chopin style”, which has been firmly established by the authoritative conservatories and institutions all over the world. Today, to have an “international career”, a pianist usually has to follow the already laid path, which includes years of study at conservatories, playing following strict requirements to win international competitions, earning performance contracts, etc. For those people, Pogorelich’s pianism is almost a negation, an insult. Actually, what Pogorelich is doing in piano playing is quite similar to the scandals that Edouard Manet and Claude Monet have caused in painting of the late 19th century, when they declared war against “academism” in fine arts.

At any rate, those loyal to the traditional ways of classical piano playing can still feel assured that there is only one Ivo Pogorelich. The guy is unique. For the listeners, such as the Western lady mentioned in the beginning of this article, Tokyo has enough options. From now until the end of the year, in chronological order, they can enjoy piano concerts by Akira Eguchi (Hamarikyu Asahi Hall), Dang Thai Son (Kioi Hall), Yu Kosuge (Izumi Hall), Maurizio Pollini (Suntory Hall), Radu Lupu (Tokyo Opera City Hall), and Lang Lang (Suntory Hall). Those, who like the traditional as well as unorthodox styles, have more selections, because their minds are open. They simply like what they like. The fewest choices remain to those who have become bored with the trite, although smooth and sophisticated. To them Ivo Pogorelich’s playing has the effect of a strong brandy that once one has become used to, everything else seems tasteless.

Tokyo, May 15, 2012

See the Vietnamese version.

Thanks are due to Alec Weil of Pianoforti (Tokyo) for his careful reading of the text and corrections.


[1] Barry Davis, Playing it like it is, The Jerusalem Post, 26 February 2010.

[2] Виктор Лихт, Иво Погорелич: “Я обожаю Израиль”, Nautilus, 5 March 2010.

[3] Ирина Тушинцева, Иво Погорелич: “В жизни нужно уметь делать правильный выбор…”,радио «Орфей», 25 February 2010.

[4] Bryce Morrison, From competition to competition, Gramophone, January 1993, p. 11.




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