When personality outshines performance

It is fascinating to watch trends in performance styles emerge and develop. We are, it seems, slowly being weaned from the antiseptic period of musicmaking - particularly among pianists - that has had as its motto ''All the Notes, as Cleanly as Possible.''

But what are we emerging and developing toward? If Ivo Pogorelich is any example, nothing good. If I appear to pounce on Mr. Pogorelich for his recent Carnegie Hall performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa conducting, it is because that performance reflected some dangerous emerging trends that need to be addressed.

Often a certain extra-musical reclame builds up around a performer; with, Pogorelich, the hype began when he was eliminated from the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in '190: Judge Martha Argerich, herself a former Chopin winner, stormed out of Warsaw in protest. Pogorelich became the instant idol of the classical teeny-bopper set more for his leather pants and string ties than for his profound musicmaking. He was lavished with important dates and a Deutsche Grammophon recording contract and was suddenly the hottest new property around, at the age of 22, and a figure of controversy.

Just what sort of controversy does Pogorelich represent? Judging from the Tchaikovsky, not in any good sense of the word. Perhaps it was just an off night , but on the basis of this hearing, I would have to say that he needs tremendous amounts of musical seasoning before he can begin to assume the role of artist rather than petulant enfant terrible - the role he seems to be reveling in right now. There is technique to spare, and at its best, the tone he elicits from a keyboard is rich, supple, varied. (At its worst, it is bangy, brittle, and in the quieter moments, virtually inaudible.)

Rethinking a classic is something done all the time. It does not mean distorting the piece; rather, through years of experience and living with the work, finding more in it than might first meet the ear. Pogorelich tries the same thing, but to distressing results. Tempos were at times tortuously slow. The pianist's willful eccentricities proved constantly in violation of the music. He consistently focused attention on his hands, his fingers, his personality, without once elucidating or enlightening the concerto.

Traditional approaches were inverted throughout: Where one usually slows, Pogorelich raced; where one usually cavorts along at quite a clip, he slowed things down to a crawl. Incidental details were spotlighted as major events; pivotal dramatic stretches were blurred into trivial asides. Technically, there was much to admire in the fingers, although the touch tended toward the unrelentingly heavy or the nearly inaudible. The double-octave run near the end of the concerto was muddily articulated. The balance between the frenzied and the calm in the last movement was neutralized by Pogorelich's disheveled approach to matters of tempo.

One was constantly aware of a young artist of talent and promise being allowed to indulge himself in public and to be acclaimed for what can only be described as self-preening. In a very short time, he may actually believe that anything he chooses to do is worth listening to, period. And this would spell the end of his career as a serious musician. But there were plenty of people at the concert who had gone to hear him be outrageous, either in matters of clothing or of musicianship. (It should be noted he was in white tie and tails the other night, and perhaps his musicmaking will begin to settle into something more restrained and serious as well.)

I am the first to applaud a breaking away from the drillmaster technical approach to playing that has dominated the world of youth today. But Pogorelich embodied an extreme that, if allowed to progress unchecked, could develop into a trend that would do even more damage to musicmaking than the lifeless perfection that haunts our stages. And given how easily trends and personality cults arise today, we must not be allowed to start witnessing a wave of Pogo (as he is lovingly nicknamed) clones ignoring music for the sake of ego.

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