Classical: When a poseur gets serious

Ivo Pogorelich is a changed man. His wife's death and the agony of his native Yugoslavia have thrown him into his work with renewed vigour. By Michael Church

Michael Church
Thursday 15 April 1999 23:02

The last time I met Ivo Pogorelich, the pianist was sprawled like a pasha in his baronial drawing-room in Surrey. Things were so arranged that I should quiz him from a distance, as though on bended knee. But the figure I ran into at the BBC this week looked more like a night-club bouncer: massively muscular, ponytailed, in sports gear and, after savaging a hapless In Tune presenter live on air, exuding dangerous aggression. Which is the real Pogorelich? What has happened over the past three years? The conventional mad-genius theory - often applied to this passionately Croat virtuoso - doesn't cover the case.

In the Eighties, when he was one of the best-selling classical artists in the world, Pogorelich came on in white silk suits and orange scarves, and eventually disappointed his fans by marrying his (much older) Russian piano teacher. But he loved to shock by where he played (Israel, for example) as well as how, and on the outbreak of war on his home turf he turned political. He became a Unesco "goodwill ambassador", raising funds for Croatian charities and the restoration of historic Dubrovnik.

At our first meeting he had seemed, in some odd way, to be a spectator at the ringside of his own greatness: as he presented them, all the events in his life had epic significance. Summing up his celebrated elimination from the 1980 Warsaw Chopin competition - sick, guarded by soldiers, and furiously championed by his fellow pianist Martha Argerich - he concluded: "Was I poisoned? I still don't know. But I became a symbol of political things that were to come." Then he gave a curious, disbelieving laugh.

But behind the heroic facade, I sensed a private struggle. He talked bitterly of his botched pianistic beginning under bad teachers in his native Belgrade, and of his years of corrective slog at the Moscow Conservatoire. But he didn't talk at all about the family he left behind when stardom beckoned in the West. Was his younger brother, also a pianist, any good? His answer was a patronising shrug. He had sacked his family and married his mentor. Was it guilt which made him rally to the cultural defence of his homeland? No comment.

Since then, his wife and mentor Alice Kezeradze has died. He doesn't talk about her now, but his record of Chopin's Scherzi, which Deutsche Grammophon has just released, speaks volumes. Not only through the music, which reflects the electric excitement of their last tutor-pupil collaboration, but also through the photograph he's chosen for the liner-note. This shows a couple in the heyday of their love: a powerful woman, and behind her a possessively protecting, slender youth. The real Pogorelich, it seems, is as divided as ever.

And making up for it by furious engagement in public affairs. Last week he was playing in Montreal to raise money for the project he has long championed: a new maternity clinic for Sarajevo, to replace the one shelled to bits by the Serbs. Next week he will be raising more money for that cause in Kuwait. "This will be the first-ever classical piano recital in that country. There were big problems finding an instrument, and finally they have produced one of a brand I will not name for fear of astonishing you." For some reason this mongrel joanna must remain a secret. He will give several performances there, including one for students and one for segregated women. "I see this as a pioneering effort," he says.

He won't be drawn on the Kosovo conflict, and stresses his continuing links with Belgrade ("I still have admirers there"). But he's deeply preoccupied with the war - "the images one sees on television throw one out of one's skin" - and with the tradition of Serb violence. "I remember the suppression of Belgrade students in 1969. It happened under our windows, and my parents would not let me watch. That is a memory I have never been free of.

"And I am worried about the Slav race in general." How so? "There is a problem with imagery and mythology, with the Slav mentality." The romantically-minded Slav countries are lagging behind in the global digital revolution, " in which classical music is on the losing side".

But is not computer-rich America still producing fabulous pianists? "In 1993, there was held in Pasadena the first Ivo Pogorelich Piano Competition, which had no age limits and therefore allowed a survey of the available pianism in America. And what do you think 90 per cent of the contestants wanted? Not the $100,000 prize money, but a hundred hours of coaching!" Clinching evidence, he says, that the wired Americans are aware of their cultural impoverishment.

Does he teach? "I don't believe in the multi-capacity of musicians. If you have the qualification to be a motorcyclist, don't drive a bus. To be a tutor takes round-the-clock dedication. Master classes are a waste of time." How well does his younger brother play these days? "I think he performs from time to time."

Pogorelich's next London performance will be on 26 April at the Royal Festival Hall: a Chopin recital to raise cash for the destroyed museum in Vukovar, his latest good cause. The evening will include a raffle for holidays to Zagreb: not a joke, he explains irritably, for it is now one of the safest places on earth. Finally, he talks about Chopin - his experimental daring and the hitherto ignored Spanish influence on his Mazurkas and Etudes. Then I remember that, as well as being an artist of genius, this provocative poseur has a seriously analytical mind. Will the real Pogorelich ever emerge in unambiguous form? I doubt it. But while the records remain transcendent, and the good works bear fruit, who cares?

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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