The Critics: Music - Sex, Chopin, and Ivo Pogorelich

Ivo Pogorelich Royal Festival Hall Ariadne auf Naxos Barbican, EC2 Paul Bunyan Sadler's Wells, EC1 Faithless Cambridge Junction

It's hard to know where Ivo Pogorelich stands these days in the hierarchy of pianists. From the audience response to his Royal Festival Hall recital on Monday, you might think he was the stuff of legend. But a legend based on what? On failing, famously, to win the 1980 Warsaw Chopin competition? On a sullenly don't-touch-me hauteur that invades his playing? On a handful of recordings, more remembered for their cover photos than their content?

I'd be forced to say that Pogorelich was an empty legend, except for moments when I've heard him play with a contemplative transcendence - magical enough to keep me going to his concerts in the hope of more. Sometimes there is more, and on Monday this occasionally broke through the haze of self-indulgence to illuminate a cadence here, a texture there; a handsome sound, a smooth legato. But does he reward the patience of listeners as they sit and wait for these entrancing moments? Does he hell. I've rarely heard a pianist with more ostentatious disregard for audiences. He seems to wish we weren't there. We're like brute intruders at a private feast.

The feast was all Chopin - the two mature sonatas packaged with some of the later polonaises and mazurkas - and Pogorelich has always positioned himself as a Chopin specialist. But I'm not convinced that, in the 20 years of his career, he's had so much to offer in that market. These days, the natural heirs to the Chopin legacy of Rubinstein are Perahia (for poetry), Pollini (for technique), Ashkenazy (for all-round accomplishment), with Kissin as the dazzling new boy-claimant on the block. If they have one thing in common - which you might therefore call the current wisdom on Chopin playing - it's a strong sense of the classical finesse that underpins Chopin's romantic fantasy.

Rhythmic and metrical precision can't be ignored in music that so often derives from dance. And although a flexible rubato - the stretching of time values - is important too, it's meaningless except in the context of a governing pulse. Rubato, after all, means "stolen". If the playing is so loose that it projects no pulse, what is there to steal?

With Pogorelich there was very little. This was jelly on a wall - un- nailable, untakeable - and with material misjudgements in the right- and left-hand balance. As for personality - well, it was none too pleasant, lost in self and image. Some romantic music lets you camouflage that sort of thing in bluster. But in Chopin there's no hiding place. It's an exposure of the soul. The one I saw on Monday, I'm afraid I didn't care for.

To see the same person day after day, wherever you go, is usually a sign a paranoia, maybe love. I'm not in love with Richard Hickox, nor particularly paranoid about him. But this week he's been a constant presence in my life.

First there was the news that he is to take over the BBC National Orchestra of Wales after Mark Wigglesworth (at long last, a big band of his own). Then he was at the Barbican to conduct Ariadne Auf Naxos. And damn me if the next day he wasn't at Sadler's Wells to conduct Paul Bunyan. No one in the baton business works so hard. And the miracle of Hickox is that, although he takes on so much (with not always the best artists), he gets mostly good results that sometimes stray into the realms of glory. Last week I wrote about his wonderful Strauss adaptation of Idomeneo. And with similar personnel involved (the City of London Sinfonia and soprano Christine Brewer) Ariadne promised to be wonderful as well.

In the event, it wasn't - let down by indifferent singing and instrumental playing. But it was a fascinating (semi-staged) show in that Hickox had dug out the original 1912 version of the piece, which is very different to the one we know. Ariadne is an opera within an opera. But originally it was an opera-within-a-play (Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) with spoken text and incidental music to create the context that Strauss later turned into his all-sung prologue. It must have made for a long evening; and at the Barbican the text was cut down to a one-man summary, which was probably for the best.

But there were major differences in the opera itself, with the character of Zerbinetta given far more prominence than she gets in the later version. In the original, her central coloratura number "Grossmachtige Prinzessin" was an even greater tour de force, up a tone and running on for 80 extra bars. And, as the opera closes, she got more or less the last word, deflating the impassioned grandeur of the Ariadne-Bacchus scene and forcing the whole action back into the frame of the gentilhomme's salon. That's neater than the final version, where the salon is forgotten; and it certainly works with a Zerbinetta of the quality of Cyndia Sieden, who was far and away the best thing about this Barbican show, with an amazing stamina, control and style.

Paul Bunyan was in much the same way a qualified disappointment, redeemed by some of the solos (and the odd strong chorus) but without the vigour and commitment that won this show awards when the Royal Opera first staged it. It's still essentially a good show - of a piece in which the two emergent gods of mid-20th-century British culture, Auden and Britten, flex their muscles with provocative, audacious brilliance. And in Britten's case it reads like a source-book, brimming with ideas and processes that surface (polished up a little) in his later operas.

But this revival is a victim of the shadow-existence to which the Royal Opera has been reduced until Covent Garden reopens in December. For all Hickox's efforts (and he works hard in the pit) it feels uncertain, under- rehearsed. It's only the galvanising presence of Kurt Streit as the new Johnny Inkslinger, along with some delightful singing from Susan Gritton and Timothy Robinson, that lifts the evening. If you hear the text, you're either sitting in the front row or you're fantasising.

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