Wilful, unmusical, humourless – with a ravishing main course

I am pausing at lunchtime to blog this review because I am still haunted by the irritation occasioned by last night’s concert, so I’m getting it out of my system!

The offending concert was by the Philharmonia Orchestra, under the baton of Tugan Sokhiev, with the main offender, Ivo Pogorelich at the piano.  Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony framed a maddening, frustrating and, frankly, dire performance of the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto.

The Liadov was interesting.  The impressionistic depiction of a lake under moonlight lasted only about 7 minutes, but made a fair impression.  The soundworld was the Wagner of the Wesendonck Lieder, Siegfried Idyll and Tristan: all wafting perfume and heady, shifting tonalities dressed in a sumptuous but not over-heavy orchestration.  Not one to make a special trip for, but a piece that suited the Philharmonia’s distinctive sound well.

Then we hit trouble.  I was not aware of the reputation of Pogorelich for a particular mannered, wilful style, so what followed came as quite a shock.  I haven’t heard the Tchaikovsky concerto live for a long time, so was looking forward to reacquainting myself.  Something I can heartily say I did not do.  I am also not as critical a listener to piano and orchestra as I am to voice: on this occasion, however, deficiencies were all too apparent.

The opening chords broke forth and, in a measured but nonetheless sweeping way, the phrase developed until it went ‘crunch!‘ against massive, slow, deliberate chords by Pogorelich. It was jarring and robbed the opening of all of its momentum.  What followed was more of the same.  Time and again, the orchestra seemed to be let off the leash only to by retamed by Pogorelich and forced to play ponderously and metronomically in music that should have – indeed, needs – drama, sweep and personality.  Piano cadenzas and solos were brought to grinding near-halts that some people could have taken to be intensity, but I could not abide.  It felt utterly bereft of warmth, or tenderness or any human emotion. It felt to me as though it came apart under such scrutiny; where once there was music, now there were just notes.

By the end of the first movement, I felt like I’d sat through an entire symphony.  The other movements followed in a similar vein; the slow passages seeming to take an eternity.  I had to start reading my programme; had I not done so, the effort to control my frustration would have been too difficult.  I wanted to stand up and shout ‘for God’s sake, just play the damn thing!’

The piano sound was interesting.  It was consistently thick and heavy; even lighter notes rang forth with a deliberate attack.  Everything was utter control.  Tchaikovsky was never going to get an upper hand on Mr Pogorelich.

And then as it (finally) drew to a close, that last passage of orchestral excitement was allowed its gallop to the end.  Finally, some energy, some excitement, some life.  It was too little, too late.  It was like a lacklustre performance of the last act of La Traviata: the heroine spending half an hour in the humourless doldrums, to perk up for one final soaring phrase and then, mercifully, silence…

People cheered; some definitely boo’d.  Clearly the approach divides opinion.  I can appreciate cold, distant technicality, but not – for God’s sake, NOT – in Tchaikovsky.  Boy, did I need that interval glass of wine…?

Then back in for a much-improved Shostakovich 5.  During the interval post-mortem, we had wondered whether the fault was Pogorelich’s, Sokhiev’s or a combination, and expected that the Shostakovich would give us some clue.  And, on the basis of the final assessment, I think I would pitch it at 80% Pogorelich and 20% Sokhiev.  The Shostakovich was also an intensely controlled affair, although Sokhiev’s body language was chalk-and-cheese relative to that in the Tchaik.  Where before he had gestured with simple, plodding, almost pedestrian sweeps and four-squares (standing with arms folded during solo piano passages), here he was much more animated, completely connected to the complex isntrumental entries.

When it was big, it was huge, thunderous, overwhelming.  When it was small, it was measured, controlled, precise and, if resulting revelations were only occasional, they were still interesting.  I can remember the passage in the Finale which I hadn’t heard before, when the strings are holding a chord, only to be taken up a notch by a xylophone, and then again, and then again… fabulous ratcheting up of tension.  Again, though, the downside to this is that there is a heart-on-sleeve quality to Shostakovich that is not dissimilar to Tchaikovsky and it was again what was missing.  Reading the programme note, it was interesting to note Shostakovich’s description of the Finale as ‘forced rejoicing’.  I thought Sokhiev contrasted well the simple, quiet, human-scale string passages with the thunderous, overpowering climaxes.  By the end, in the monumental final passage (almost deafening from our seats in the choir), the orchestra was like a malevolent, unstoppable machine, carrying all before it in a blaze of dangerous, oppressive bombast.  Finally, something to get the blood up.

And so now’s the bit where I can rave.  If there were ever-present questions of interpretation throughout the concert, one thing was consistent and consistently astounding: the sound and technical quality of the Philharmonia were breathtaking.  Of all the London orchestras (in modern-instrument practice, anyway), the Philharmonia seems to have the most immediately recognisable soundworld: an almost unbelievable richness, depth and scale of sound that knocks me sideways with each reacquaintance.  I’m glad that there are other orchestras – a diet always this rich would soon pall – but it is fabulous, thrilling indulgence.

Maybe they (or, perhaps and admittedly, just I) would do well to keep away from Pogorelich…

8 comments

  1. POGORELICH. Well said, sir. I agree with every word of yours. I was so incensed that I left straight after the Tchaikovsky as I felt so dispirited. An act of musical sabotage and such arrogance. Thanks,

    Hywel

  2. Even Mozart said about his mother that she preferes “watching the opera instead of listetning…” That might be your problem, too.
    It is not the first time that the audience is “offended” with the arts during the history of the theory of arts. In the productive arts, offence was quite usual method, already in the 19th century (even Plato did it earlier), to make people stop taking care about the plot, and making them care about the form! Pogorelich is the first one doing the same thing in the reproductive arts. That makes him a genius.

  3. Sorry, but no. My ‘problem’ in this instance was someone who placed themselves above Tchaikovsky and at some distance from the ensemble around him in the pursuit of his own perverse interpretation. Offence is indeed a valid and powerful ingredient in reactions to a piece of creativity. It is good to be prompted into such a strong reaction against something; that in itself (to a point) justifies some of the time and money invested in the ticket. I don’t, however, agree with the term genius. For me the overall effect was banal and empty; just a clever trick that wore very thin very quickly. But others clearly disagree: as I said above, there was applause – and vigorous applause – as well as boo’s. Hoorah! for diversity in response to art.

  4. Then let’s just take it this way: right now I am just a happier person, because I understand and therefore enjoy it… I can even understand what you dislike. I wish you could understand what I like, as well. Is something good because we like it, or we like it because it’s good? And the offence happens when the injury happens. Injury is necessary to move ahead in arts. It doesn’t sound like Tchaikovsky? How can we know what Tchaikovsky should sound like, and even if we knew, should we all play it the same way? Reproductive arts should be called co-productive. And I respect your oppinion as well, I just wish you didn’t use so many ugly words, it can hurt people’s feelings, it’s so unnecessary. Van Gogh saw the beauty in the ugliness, it took many years before the collective mind could recognise it as well. So long, I wish you many beautiful concerts, and the happyness that you derive from them!

  5. Absolutely agree with the author and his review on the ‘offending’ concert. I was equally repulsed. I wanted to leave after the first movement, but I was forced to stay. It left me in such a foul mood for the rest of the evening and made me wonder what it’s all about. What astounded (and saddened me….) was that there clearly WAS a standing ovation at the end (I didn’t hear any booing..). At that point I just had to rush out. I had a feeling that the crowd didn’t know the Tchaikovsky, or had heard it as background music etc. I’ve heard Pogorelich play over the years – stunning Gaspard on the Carnegie Hall stage, exquisite Scarlatti sonatas in Avery Fisher Hall…such wonderful moments. But now? It’s over.

  6. Thanks Erica. Not sure where you were sitting – we were in the side choir, and from there we could hear some booing, but you’re right there was much adulation, which we couldn’t understand at all. Interestingly, the Guardian have written it up in a curious like-it-or-loathe-it-I-can’t-wait-for-next-time-but-have-given-it-one-star review. http://gu.com/p/2ydjt/tw

  7. I also attended this concert. The Tchaikovsky was fascinating in the car-crash sense. I kept wanting to laugh because of the absurdist mannered performance, when quavers became minims and crotchet-length silences became semibreves.

    I recall the advice of the pianist Josef Hoffman: if you want to acquire good taste in music, then don’t listen to bad performances.

    There is a fine line between individual personality in interpretation and mannered excess, and Pogorelich was way beyond that line.

    The composer has written the notes, with other musical notations to guide the performance. Within those bounds there are an infinite variety of interpretations. Stretching those bounds is permissible, but ignoring the composer’s clear instructions is not. Where would you stop? Why not simply play different notes altogether? After all, Pogorelich ignored the note values.

    However, I paid him the compliment of being sincere, just wrong. I would only boo if I felt he was being insincere or unprofessional. So I just applauded politely. But I won’t be attending a concert of Mr Pogorelich again or buying any of his recordings.

  8. And a final thought: the Shostakovich finale made me think of the forced applause for Stalin’s speeches. Genuine applause, but also forced. Brilliant ambiguous writing by Shostakovich.

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