August 9, 2010

The ugliest music I’ve ever heard

I posted something like this elsewhere in July 2007, shortly after my second Ivo Pogorelich concert in two years:

We saw him in 2005. He was my woman’s favorite pianist, she’d caught him live every possibility, so I was prepared that he had developed in strange ways since his pretty idiosyncratic last record in 93 or so. She warned me that the experience probably wouldn’t be overwhelming, since no pianist can really fill the Gewandhaus here in Leipzig with sound, but it should be deep, even if Scriabin and Rachmaninov for the second half didn’t exactly make my mouth water. But, to start with, there would be a mix of Chopin pieces, then a sonata.

A grumpy looking bald guy slouches in boxer style. We’re making ourselves comfy. Then he hits a single ugly note, then something hits me, and I’m struggling to get a grip of what’s happening here.

It feels incredibly slow. And very bleak, cold at heart. The only association I have is Loren Connors, tones emerging from a forlorn center, reaching out, trying to connect but dying before they can, opening up spaces. It sounds nothing like Chopin, though the tune is somewhere beneath the slow chords, played like under the breath, with incredible virtuosity, but more as a background. Pogorelich moves through minimal gestures, staring on the keyboard with intense concentration, and after a while it seems like he’s able to choose which notes to pick out of the text and lift them into those slow chords in real time; there is a improvisatory element to his choices.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, a third layer unfolds, one of ugly treble notes that Pogorelich punches out aggressively, one every couple of measures or so. It takes me a while, but when I start to hear them they fall into very slow melodic lines. Once I notice, listening gets really complicated. Pogorelich might start another part of the composition within the main text of his playing through a break, but then the next high note hits as a logical progression from the one before stuff wound down, and the mind’s ear has to paddle back and hear a transition instead of a break, trying not to lose the thread that keeps proceedings together all the while.

I try closing my eyes to concentrate better, but then I understand nothing—I have to watch his hands to keep a grasp.

He mixed all the pieces into each other, no pause for applause or anything, then a quick bow and off he slouched. We picked our jaws from the floor and drunkenly stumbled into intermission. (I should note here that while the above is mostly my own attempt to make sense of musical proceedings and you shouldn’t trust me, my woman is a pianist and knows these pieces inside out, and she was hit just as hard. There were tons of musicians in the audience, many of whom hated it, one mumbling, “That’s the ugliest music I’ve ever heard,” another, “I don’t want to hear music I don’t understand.”)

With us, exhilaration slowly set in. Classical classical concert pianists usually just don’t do this kind of thing. There are of course many who do “eccentric” interpretations. Those who play a more modern repertoire are different animals anyway, but Pogorelich always played only the chestnuts often in these “eccentric” interpretations. This was a completely different experience, though. It was radical, like taking the pure text of the music, taking it completely out of context, and building new sense out of it from the root up. It was the greatest thing that somebody from the so very conservative recital scene (and as indicated above, musicians can’t just challenge themselves by playing contemporary composers when they’re really part of that beat, it’s just not within their mind frame, it’s a different world) felt the need to keep pushing until Chopin was the most challenging music on the planet.

But there was no joy in his interpretation, it was too intense, almost desperate, there were some really bad vibes coming from the stage. Then again, we were sure, he couldn’t do it again after intermission, it was just something that had happened due to mood glitches. He couldn’t do it with Scriabin and Rachmaninov.

He did it again. The Scriabin was even more bleak, but more pure, as more of the text could be put into the slow chords, and as it’s colder stuff to begin with. Again, no break, but straight into the Rachmaninov where sometimes incredibly fast stride passages were clashing into the mood, and the long finale had lost all its virtuosic aspect and was more about punishing the piano with force and precision. We were completely exhausted from trying to listen, from trying not to miss anything Pogorelich was doing. It really seemed like a superhuman effort, like in some 70s flic where a mutant brain can change the course of asteroids or shake down cathedrals by sheer will power—if only the brain cells won’t melt before.

Then it was over, some people freakin’, most just doing the clapping game like they always do—we ourselves were too washed out to really applaud. No encore, what more was there to say? We stumbled out into the night and from then on Pogo was the family patron saint, and we invoked his name whenever we did something half-assed (which of course means he was around a lot).

Yesterday he played the Gewandhaus once more. He couldn’t do it again. Or could he? My woman had a nightmare in which he took things even further, but luckily she didn’t remember the details.

He wouldn’t even try. A Brahms Intermezzo was just that, an endless transition between nowhere and no place special in a mock-romantic gesture that seemed slightly ironic. Then he slept through a Prokovjev, ogling the sheet music (of course he’d played by heart two years ago). Technically wondrous, yes, and some nice unforeseen passages, but he made no sense. It was as if he were trying out possible angles on the piece but too tired to follow things up. Intermission. I was depressed. My woman was relieved as her nightmare hadn’t come true and earth still survived.

The second half started with three dances by Granados. Now the early Benedetti Michelangeli could play something like this and miraculously transform it through impeccable taste and touch. Pogorelich gave it the whole works. My interest actually picked up by the third time he was flying with full flags through an unspeakably banal chorus, my woman was rather more pissed off, still we agreed: guy’s making fun of us, must be. At least he’d woken up and now he gave an ice-cold rendition of Gaspard le Nuit that went deeper than everything he’d played before, but in the end it was depressing, the interpretation following nuance for nuance what he had recorded 20 years ago, only cooled down here to where there’s no feeling. (Actually I found that piece very impressive but I don’t want to know what it implied about the mood of the performer.)

This time an encore, don’t ask me, it did involve lots of notes.

Right now we’re a sad household. You could suspect that Pogorelich just is a somewhat arrogant dude who tries his stuff out in public, so during that he’s lukewarm, but once he’s mastered all the innards of the tunes he’ll slay you. I don’t think so, since he played stuff he’d done before. If you consider his personal tragedy, and the fact that he will usually have received no love for his more extreme and beautiful take on things—somehow it really felt like he had given up, like he no longer knew what he was on stage for but he vaguely remembered the motions. And he probably doesn’t even know what it could have meant to two folks up in the wings—and since the man seems to be the saddest man on earth, that’s what we want to tell him: you sailed around the moon single-handedly, and it fucking matters.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this, I still can't imagine how Pogorelich sounds like (I think I've never heard him and my mind is not musical enough to build up the music just based on your description). But your essay is music itself. What a joyful thing to read!