Playing Himself to Tears

Next week, Ivo Pogorelich will come to Israel for a series of recitals in Israel. On the program are Frederic Chopin's Nocturne No. 2 and Sonata No. 3, Franz Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" and Maurice Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit."

In advance of the visit I held a brief phone conversation with the artist from his home in Lugano, Italy, but it was not a relaxed talk. At the age of 51, Pogorelich does not open himself up to the media easily. Before the conversation we were asked to send the questions in writing - most probably so he could make sure there would be no prying into forbidden matters. The questions were sent and they passed muster, but in the conversation itself, which began exactly at the appointed time, the artist sounded as though he was fulfilling an annoying obligation and made it clear that the interview could not take too long.

Pogorelich was born 1958 in Belgrade. He studied piano first in his own country and then in Moscow from age 12, where at 17 he met his master teacher, Georgian pianist Aliza Kezeradze.

Today he can look back at a 30-year career, which began sensationally in 1980 at the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

The pianist Martha Argerich, who was a member of the jury, protested his elimination in the finals and declared him to be a genius. That same year he married Kezeradze, 21 years his senior and the mother of a child, after she left her husband for him.

Pogorovich went through the 1980s and the 1990s with the aura of an amazing virtuoso who hypnotized audiences everywhere. He recorded discs of works by many composers for Deutsche Grammophon. In 1994, with the help of donors he founded a piano competition in his name in Pasadena, California. The competition was held only once and the two winners received $75,000 each. In 1996 Kezeradze died and Pogorelich withdrew from public artistic activity for a number of years.

In an interview with Die Welt in 2006, he spoke about Kezeradze's importance in his life: "I had to reinvent myself. She was so demanding. She clothed herself in art, she absorbed it, devoured it. She was so universal. She had everything, class, education, beauty, talent and affection. She outshone everything like a comet. You could never stand still with her, that's true, she was always on the go. Even in death she was still the princess she was born as. She had cancer of the liver. When she died her liver exploded, and in her last kiss she showered me with black blood. I looked like the Phantom of the Opera. My hair was completely clotted. I didn't want to wash it off. When they condoled us with champagne I was still covered in her blood. But everyone understood. It was like with Jackie Kennedy who didn't want to change the dress that was spattered with her husband's brain. I was happy so early in my life, I knew now I would have to stand on my own two feet. It just took a long time. "I couldn't touch the piano because my memories flooded out like Niagara Falls. It took time before I could be creative again. Before, proposals and solutions had been offered to me like jewels on a silver tray. Aliza knew I could do that myself too. But I needed time, because she had shaped me the way you sharpen a knife every day. When Aliza came into my life I was 17 and at a dead end with my piano studies. I wasn't getting anywhere, I wanted to dance but wasn't even able to walk."

Listening to Pogorelich's recordings anew confirms a salient fact: His piano-playing is astounding and his interpretations are radical, arousing a broad spectrum of reactions even within a single work.

For example, in Mozart's Sonata K 331 (Deutsche Grammophon, 1995) the opening andante is sweeping, romantic and sickly-sweet. It is all "Mozart in the service of Pogorelich." The minuet and the trio are excellent and the final movement, "a la Turka," is simply extraordinary.

In the interview Pogorelich says there is a unifying theme in the works he has chosen to play here.

"Chopin, Liszt and Ravel appreciated the piano," he said. "All three of them drew inspiration from the instrument's sonic possibilities. Chopin's Nocturne affords the possibility of expressing intimate feelings. Chopin's sonata was written in a later period and integrates memories. Liszt's 'Mephisto Waltz' is stunning music, with opportunities for displaying virtuosity. As for Ravel's 'Gaspard,' it is a work that speaks for itself and I will mention only that Ravel composed as if in a competition. I am now 51 and I've been playing 'Gaspard' since I was very young. It brings me a lot of inspiration."

Are Balakirev's "Islamey" and "Gaspard" the most difficult works in the piano literature?

"Not at all. The most difficult works are the ones based on folklore. Folk musicians, the authentic performers of folk music, achieve levels of perfection classical musicians don't achieve because they perform the same music again and again and arrive at far more polished and refined expression. Therefore [Enrique] Granados' 'Twelve Spanish Dances,' or works by [Isaac] Albeniz, are the hardest to play - even though they don't have many notes."

Pogorelich notes that his mother is Serbian and he says this gives him a connection to Ottoman culture. "My late father was a Croat, with a connection to Greek, Roman and later Austrian and Italian culture," he said.

What is your attitude towards the bloody conflicts between Serbia and other nations in the former Yugoslavia? Do you think one sides is more just?

"It is easy to incite people to acts of violence, but there are rare cases of just wars," he says, noting the large donations of money he raised to repair Dubrovnik in Croatia and to help Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. "Move on to the next question."

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Pogorelich, he agrees in principle with Daniel Barenboim's approach and intends to perform with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. "I am planning a new festival for young instrumentalists, in Lugano, which will open in 2011. In 2012 or 2013 I will host Barenboim's orchestra."

As a performer, do you feel better in live concerts or recordings? "Recordings happen only after you've played a work a hundred times in performances. In a live concert everything flows. Recording is documentation." Do ringing telephones during concerts disrupt your concentration?

"Ringing cell phones don't bother me. At a concert of mine in Rome a 94-year-old man died in the middle of my playing. I continued."

How did you come to design jewelry?

"I found in it a solution to long hours of loneliness."

How is beautiful design defined?

"When the jewelry immediately arouses the desire to steal it. It's a primordial instinct."

Further on in the interview, Pogorelich mentions that his father was an amateur swimmer who took part in swimming competitions.

So do you also swim a lot?

"Mostly in tears."

A delicate subject in interviews with Pogorelich is his relationship with his younger brother, Lovro Pogorelich, 40, also a professional pianist who runs a festival of his own in Croatia.

In previous interviews Ivo replied to questions about his brother with a shrug or a terse sentence indicating a taboo. In an interview some years ago he told me: "I cannot talk about his playing. He belongs to a different approach, a different world. I have not been to his concerts."

Now, in reply to the question of whether he is prepared to say something about his brother's career, he says only, "No one can stop a love for music."