Ivo Pogorelich, Royal Festival Hall, review: A strange comeback at the Southbank

His Schumann didn't sound like Schumann at all, but by the end he had the ecstatic audience – and this critic – in the capacious palm of his hand

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The Independent Culture

In the Eighties Ivo Pogorelich was the hottest pianist on the planet, combining haute couture with a fabulous technique and very individual artistry.

But then disaster struck: his mentor-wife died and the voices in his head told him to play slower and slower, until he finally fell silent. He returned to the Southbank four years ago to play a Tchaikovsky concerto, but this week’s recital in a packed Festival Hall was his real comeback after fifteen years away. 

Now statuesque and dusty-looking rather than lithe and glossy, he launched into Liszt’s Apres une lecture du Dante as though he and it were inhabiting a marble tomb: its cold authority was unrelieved, but it built a formidable momentum with the central section singing powerfully.

Schumann’s Opus 17 Fantasie which followed didn’t sound like Schumann at all: its opening was flaccid, it drifted where it should have been driven by passion; it suggested something trapped under a microscope rather than flying free, with time passing in painful slow motion.

For poetry we had to wait until the middle movement of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but then something clicked, and he played Brahms’s Herculean Paganini Variations as though possessed: his interpretations were idiosyncratic but wonderfully persuasive, and by the end he had the ecstatic audience – and this critic – in the capacious palm of his hand.