From wunderkind to guardian angel

Ivo Pogorelich was sold as a classical Mick Jagger. Douglas Kennedy found him older and wiser

Douglas Kennedy
Thursday 18 May 1995 23:02

The house is massive and modern, a red-brick mansion tucked away on a high-rent estate in deepest Surrey. Electronic barricades block the entrance to the estate, manned by beefy security blokes, the sort who might just introduce an intruder to the pleasures of GBH. They're probably well used to keeping autograph-hunters at bay, since the property they're guarding is something of a hacienda for the rich and glitzy. Cliff Richard, Yoko Ono, George Best - and the usual bevy of resting rock stars - all own homes within its confines.

A pianist dwells here too - and though it's doubtful whether his fans make pilgrimages to the gates of his sprawling house (complete with marble- clad indoor swimming pool), it isn't surprising that he lives in such a "superstar" environment. After all, ever since he shot to fame 20 years ago, Ivo Pogorelich has been sold to the public as the Mick Jagger of the concert platform - a pianist whose smouldering East European good looks, flash wardrobe, pyrotechnic keyboard skills, and unapologetic arrogance all gave him a Jumping Jack Flash image.

And indeed, his cocksure audacity got up many people's noses - to the point where detractors accused him (alongside Nigel Kennedy) of taking an "I'll do anything" approach to self-marketing. And in the early Eighties, he really did cause consternation in the classical music world by modelling clothes for Cosmopolitan, publicly dismissing most other living pianists as second-raters and clashing so fiercely with Herbert von Karajan, during a recording session of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, that the last of the great Teutonic time-beaters refused to work with the young Croat again.

The critics divided into two camps: the bedazzled, and those who objected to his fast-and-loose interpretative skills. Consider the thoughts of former New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, who first heard Pogorelich play at the 1980 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw: "He ignored the score and did everything wrong. Except for one thing: he's clearly a genius."

The great pianist Martha Argerich clearly agreed: she walked off the Warsaw jury when it failed to award Pogorelich the top prize - a protest that made headlines and helped create the controversial mystique that has surrounded him ever since.

Of course, wunderkinds age like the rest of us - and, now entering his 38th year, Pogorelich is no longer teen pin-up material. The man who answers the front door of his Surrey manse is starting to show a few tell- tale signs of impending mid-life: his face is on the verge of developing a jowly fullness and there are hints of a midriff bulge.

But what strikes you most forcibly about Pogorelich is his rigorous intelligence - he is ferociously well-read ("You know, I commissioned Croatian translations of Milan Kundera's novels") and has strong opinions about everything from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky to the eccentricities of another great controversial pianist, Glenn Gould ("I object to Gould's criticisms of Beethoven. He obviously didn't have a proper upbringing").

More tellingly, he still projects the image of a man who, both creatively and personally, has never suffered a second of self-doubt. Yet, once he gets comfortable with you, the arrogant facade falls away and he mischievously admits that much of his vainglorious image is an act.

"When I was younger," he says, lighting up the first of many Davidoff cigarillos, "I learnt this fact of life: if you want to be famous, you can't stay in your kitchen. And - to use a vulgar American phrase - I had it all at a very young age. World-wide fame, by 22! I had even made the front of the New York Times [after his first Carnegie Hall recital].

"And, of course, many objected to my supposed flamboyance, to being photographed in magazines wearing Italian designer clothes. When I started reading terrible things about myself, I thought: what a horrific image I have. But later, I understood that it was a great blessing to have a public image that totally contradicts your real one. It is better for your private life."

Certainly, Pogorelich's private life is the antithesis of his image: he's been married for 18 years to his one-time Moscow Conservatoire teacher Alice Kezeradze (a woman in her mid-fifties) and, though he may appear to relish the limelight, he says he dreams of vanishing for a spell from the public arena.

"What I long for - and you can never really have anything you want - is to be a student again. Unfortunately I have this big commercial value placed upon me. I often say that I have a wonderful profession and a rather boring occupation."

For many critics, Pogorelich has always lived in a rather narrow interpretative universe. His repertoire is deliberately constricted (Bach, Scriabin and Chopin are the three composers who have featured most consistently), his discography is a mere 10 recordings, and his most recent CD, Mozart's Piano Sonatas KV283 and 331, is his first studio encounter with Wolfgang Amadeus.

"At the beginning of my career, everyone said, `He plays so well, but his repertory is so small'; and people still tell me this. But I prefer exploring a limited amount of work - because the longer you explore it, the more integral a part of the work you become."

Pogorelich talks passionately about the pleasures of rehearsal - that magical moment "when, after working through something over and over again, finding yourself confronting plenty of questions, plenty of dilemmas, you suddenly accelerate. That sense of acceleration is the greatest satisfaction in an artist's life."

But the subject on which he can really talk for hours is the war in Croatia. As he speaks with tight-lipped anger about the recent shelling of Zagreb - and the terrible damage inflicted upon Dubrovnik - you sense that the civil war that has ravaged his native land has also tempered his legendary arrogance, forcing him to grow up and consider his larger civic responsibilities: he has been heavily involved in relief work in Croatia and has also raised funds for a maternity hospital in Sarajevo.

"Dubrovnik, in many ways, represents the ultimate achievement of Western civilisation. But when it was shelled, I could not help but think: we are part of a civilisation that does not care about civilisation. And, curiously, I felt very, very sad for the heirs of the attackers - because they will suffer such terrible guilt for what their forebears destroyed."

n Recitals: Tuesday RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171 928 8800); 31 May Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 212 3333)

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