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Pianist Ivo Pogorelich, Unsettling Old Scores

Wednesday, November 3, 2004; Page C08

Since his controversial elimination in the third round of the International Chopin Competition in 1980, Ivo Pogorelich has been branded an "original," i.e. a pianist who believes strongly that if an artist has nothing new to say, he should say nothing at all. Pogorelich's admirers praise his innovations, his boldness and a musical intuition that brings fresh perspectives to old scores. His detractors, listening to the same performances, dismiss his interpretations as arbitrary, willful and egocentric.

Pogorelich's Sunday afternoon recital at George Mason University's Center for the Arts supplied ammunition to both camps. In the opening work, Beethoven's Sonata in F, Op. 78, the pianist presented an interpretation so wayward that it seemed he was playing a previously undiscovered work. Ignoring the composer's own tempo indications, Pogorelich played the opening Adagio Cantabile at a snail's pace, and the songful Allegro that follows dragged along without much contour. The closing Allegro Vivace was slowed to almost a practice tempo, with Beethoven's spiky humor replaced by fussy phrasings and arbitrary pauses. The audience seemed so confused by this "deconstruction" that it had to be prodded to applaud.

Having made whatever dubious point he was trying to make, Pogorelich approached Beethoven's final sonata -- No. 32 in C Minor -- with total respect for the composer's own instructions. Gone were the excesses that had disfigured Op. 78, and Pogorelich's elastic tempos captured the manic swings between the fierce drive and gentle lyricism that characterize the opening movement. The otherworldly effects of the ethereal second movement were well served by Pogorelich's extraordinary technique and almost unlimited sound palette: His trills -- executed with remarkable velocity -- seemed to spin out into infinity, while the eloquent silences characteristic of this movement hovered as if suspended in time.

After intermission Pogorelich returned to more worldly pieces: Rachmaninoff's "Moments Musicaux," Op. 16, No. 1, and a short sonata by Scriabin (Op. 19), each of which was projected with elan and fabulous tone color. Following these pieces were scintillating performances of three of Liszt's technically formidable "Transcendental" etudes; "Feux Follets" was especially brilliant. For an encore, the indefatigable pianist thrilled his listeners with a bravura performance of Mily Balakirev's "Islamey," whose fearsome leaps and cross-handed passages deter all but the supertechnicians of the pianistic world.

-- Donald H. Crosby


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