Ivo Pogorelich: dissolving controversy by caressing the piano

Young Yugoslavian pianist Ivo Pogorelich still winces when asked about the controversial 1980 Warsaw Piano Competition that propelled him into world limelight.

''It was a very dumb happening and an ugly, ugly happening altogether,'' he says of his third-round elimination that caused a public outcry, launched a European tour and garnered a prestigious recording contract. ''There was a manipulation in the jury and a manipulation by the press and although all that happened, no one got a true reflection of what I am about.''

The Polish hosts and public ignored the official winner - a Vietnamese promoted by Soviet and East European judges - and lionized Pogorelich, whose uncommon technique they felt was far superior. One judge even resigned from the jury in protest and spoke on his behalf on Polish television.

But the tall, dark-maned winner of seven other competitions says the affair contributed to a host of misconceptions he still confronts wherever he travels. Those include reports - which may have helped his elimination - that he has carefully cultivated a teen following by his flamboyant manner, overlong hair, leather trousers, and by tampering defiantly with tempo and phrasing (reversing loud and soft markings and such) to thwart the concert-going establishment.

But his just-finished US-Canadian tour helped deflate that bubble of misimpressions.

As he took the stage for his inaugural concert in Carnegie Hall, Pogorelich appeared graciously - in neatly combed hair and tails - and was nearly expressionless while playing, without so much as a wasted gesture.

Nowhere in evidence was the petulant behavior of the precocious enfant terrible, the reported rock-star insouciance that scorns traditional concert hall decorum. What emerged instead were supremely refined interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Prokofiev, along with exacting precision, astonishing delicacy, and highly delineated shading.

In conversations backstage, continued later by phone to Ottawa, the confident but quiet Pogorelich revealed the source of his audience's preconceptions.

''In America, where the media is more important, somehow the stories remain in circulation longer. And here very often you find that the doings of a person need to be described through his clothes, his behavior, whether he drinks champagne or smokes or drinks or eats yogurt and jogs - and you know that is supposed to define his character.''

Mr. Pogorelich says he once donned a leather jacket while playing in an open-air festival in wet rainy weather while the audience sat in raincoats. But stories persist of him performing in leather pants, scarves, and even dresses, which he denies completely.

As to the other charges - whimsical, extreme playing, willful abuse of tempo and phrasing - Pogorelich has a few words for the critics.

''Tempo markings are not the markings of the exact speed, they are the markings of the character (that the composer intends),'' he says. ''There is a very big difference, which even the biggest critics in the United States don't understand. You can play very fast to represent that and you could play very much slower.''

Though no critic has questioned Pogorelich's prodigious innate ability, reviews of his interpretations are mixed and are frequently based on similar, preconceived expectations of eccentricity.

Said one review after the Carnegie Hall recital: ''Anyone who came . . . expecting shocks and thrills would have gone home disappointed. There were a few eccentricities . . . but none of them was particulary outrageous. . . . There is no question, of course, about (his) remarkable technique.''

Other critics have said he uses poetic license as a license to kill. This is said to be an outgrowth of pressure to distinguish himself from the pack of upcoming prodigies as well as establishment stars.

But Mr. Pogorelich says he makes no conscious effort to contrive renditions with his personal stamp on them. His job, as he sees it, is no less than to be loyal to the composer. ''Being an interpreter doesn't mean you have to bring yourself consciously into the music for your own ego. It is enough to be in a hall filled with listeners,'' he says. There are certain artistic freedoms though, he adds, saying the player's personality can't help but transfer to the sound. ''The critics should stop concerning themselves with the extremes in my playing and start talking about the variety,'' he says.

Pogorelich says he carefully researches and studies each piece in his repertoire and plays it for at least a year before performing it. ''I don't want to be corrupted like many famous names that just pull out the compositions from a drawer and repeat them for half an hour and then go out and play.'' Although he intends to play from all musical periods - classical, modern, romantic, baroque - he'll not spread himself too thin by attempting too many different compositions.

He says he plays in the Liszt tradition. ''He was certainly the pianist who enriched piano playing more than anyone else,'' says Pogorelich of the romantic figure considered by piano scholars to be the most theatrical player in history. ''He created the modern sound on the instrument - not a type of playing but an approach to the craft of sound and how to produce it.'' He says the emphasis of the Liszt school is ''on the movements of the ear rather than the movements of the hands, because we control our playing by our ear. It is the ability to perceive planes of sound first, then produce them that makes the Liszt sound so vibrant.''

Pogorelich says he received his most inspired training from his Moscow Conservatory professor, Soviet pianist Alice Kezeradze, whom he later married and who continues to be his teacher. ''She changed completely my views and my approach to the piano and remains instrumental in all that I do,'' he says.

That she has influenced Ivo not to play any encores in his current tour provides further ground for audience misunderstanding. He expresses dismay that one critic attributed this decision to lack of audience response. ''I deliberately played no encores, because the program provides a variety of composers and is quite exhausting for a listener. To play an encore would be to my understanding a bit unstylish. It would start to look as a mixed salad.''

Whatever the misconceptions and controversy, Pogorelich has played sold-out concerts across Europe, and his Carnegie Hall concert overflowed onto the stage. How does someone who has achieved such acclaim so young continue to develop and grow as a pianist?

''I pay no attention to the success that is around me. I am left to my work, and I find there is always much to do. It is a very simple formula.''

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