Ivo Pogorelich: I rejected what I was told

Igor Pogorelic

Passionate, original, honest – no words can properly describe Ivo Pogorelich and his playing. After his performance at the Chopin and his Europe festival, in conversation with Igor Torbicki, Maestro shared his inner thoughts on music and artistic work.

Igor Torbicki: Everybody knows your story with the Chopin competition. You were a huge inspiration for people in 1980, even for non-musicians. I would even say that you were kind of an epitome of artistic freedom at that time in Poland, especially if you take into account some tensions that we had. That’s why I want to ask you this: how do you feel performing Chopin in Warsaw Philharmonic?


Ivo Pogorelich: Do you realize that this Concerto took 43 years to perform at that particular hall? I was prevented from playing it in the finals of the Competition. So it took 43 years. By virtue of circumstances. I could have played it earlier [than yesterday – I.T.], but I for some reason I didn't – I played other things.

It's quite interesting to look back because this country has changed so much... And every time we come to Warsaw, we see that this city is on the way up. It's cleaner, more modern. The facades are repainted, there are modern buildings. Warsaw is becoming a very important metropolis in Europe, one of the truly modern capital cities. For me, it's a pleasure to see it.

Now, regarding the performance… Biological cycle is such that certain people who were listening to my performance 43 years ago are simply not alive anymore. The new generations are coming in now. You are 29, right? So you were born in 1994 – 14 years after the Competition. And at that time, Poland was undergoing major changes as a country and as a society. You had no taste of what was Polish reality in 1980. You can read about it, but you don't have any personal experience.


That’s true.


IP: For me, the competition was an episode in my life. I will be 65 years old on the 20th of October. In 1980, my birthday passed here during the Competition, so I was seven years younger than you are today. Now try to imagine the attention that I got. Not only here, but worldwide. It didn't bring only nice things. On the contrary, it brought a lot of things which are not really needed in a career of a musician.


Things like controversy.


Not only that. There are stronger and weaker musical cultures. Some people just couldn't understand what was happening. In certain countries, where tradition of piano playing is not so strong, people couldn't make out what was it that I was doing.

All I ever wanted was to master my field. When I was young, I had the same aim. And there suddenly were many obstacles created. I didn’t need them, and didn't need to explain what I was doing either, because I thought that playing was enough. I continued that line and I think it's a good decision that I took. No explaining. Just… carrying on.


I think you explained what you wanted to do in broad terms once. In one of the interviews during the Competition you said that you wanted to start a new direction in interpretation of Chopin’s music.


The thing is that if you drink, let’s say, coffee from the same cup without washing it, there remains a residual that is very difficult to clean after a few days. That's what happened with Chopin and many other principal composers like Beethoven and so on. There was so much residual and bad taste... It became too sugary and sentimental as well.

Now, let’s try to accept one formula which is easy to understand. I never spoke about it because I wasn’t of the right age for it, but now I am. You see, every generation is trying to reconfirm the beauty of the music they're playing. Obviously, young people are affected by what they play, and they are willing to present the music which they play in a way that projects and transfers its beauty to listeners. Each generation of artists needs to reestablish that beauty. Otherwise music would be dead, left on the scores in the library department.

However, there are certain artists who have an attitude and are capable of dedicating themselves to their work in such a way that they surpass this generation cycle. And what they do becomes not only valuable for the past, but also for the future. I always admired such artists. There were very few in the history of performing. A few singers, instrumentalists and conductors… They were so dedicated to taking a difficult approach of not copying what was done before. Pianists were looking for instrumental solutions on their instrument which are hard to come by, difficult to conquer, to comprehend. And I was never afraid of that. So that is what I'm doing, if one wants to understand what I'm doing.


Do you consider Friedrich Gulda to be one of such unique artists?


I don't speak about colleagues. I don't speak about dead pianists, alive pianists, future pianists… No, I just speak in general. I never like to mention any names because what happens is that somebody might read this interview, take out of context what I've said, and then use it in a different way. Then it might be repeated by others like in a game of telephone. When we were children, we were playing this game. You whisper something and then when it comes back to you, it becomes a completely different thing.




Exactly. All my life I had to deal with very primitive gossip for no reason.


Now that we’ve finished the topic of the Chopin Competition, I wanted to talk about your recordings in general. Besides impeccable phrasing, which I consider yours to be, I’m always curious about your choice of tempo in a piece. How do you do it? Is it intuition?


No. There is less freedom in the recording. Consider that recording is something artificial. It's a box. Information goes into it and out of it, speaking in simple terms. In it, I cannot take as much freedom as I can take on the concert stage. There can be no improvisation. The variants that are chosen have to be objective. And they have to stay like that forever, which I hope they do, in my case.

For example I performed in China many times, but my most recent visit there was in the month of June this year. After a concert in China, there is a tradition that the artist meets people and signs recordings they bring from home or buy in the concert hall. It's a different culture. The artist is someone with whom people in Asia like to have a little bit of personal experience with after the concert, to express their gratitude. They like to say their thanks, but also to get the signature. It's very meaningful for them.

And there were people, your age and younger, who brought not only my new recordings, but also ones that were made in 1981 or 1982. Somebody aged 20 would bring 40 year old recording… This illustrates that the recordings were done in such a way that they remain actual. It's a bird that is still flying.

So you have to be objective. And you have to… Maybe not to restrict yourself, but you have to give your maximum within certain canons. The canon is that the recording has to have pace, so you can't go into endless melting sound, which you can do in certain concert halls which have good acoustics, where the notes just dissolve. Like ice cream in the sun, melting [laugh]. And then… The public stops breathing for a second, like “ah!”. This you cannot do in the recording.

And also you have to put some extra energy because as I said, it's an artificial thing. But through that artificiality you have to make it sound real and spontaneous. Actual. So it's a very hard thing to do. That's why I think that recordings are documents rather than anything else.


Documents about certain times, about you…


When the recording is finished, there is a paper which I sign so it can be no other thing. So it’s complete.


There’s one detail that interests me about your recordings. In them, you play a variety of renowned classical composers. But it's impossible to find your performances of contemporary pieces. Why is that?


Because I think that Bach, for example, is contemporary. I think that Beethoven is contemporary. We go back to the matter of reestablishing, reconfirming the value of composers today.


But we were talking about the residue on older composers.


I was meaning the residue of copying others.


That’s right, but if the repertoire is newer, how can there be any residue?


There is an inherent residue of bad taste. If you play other things in bad taste, it reflects. I can write… Well, maybe not me, because I don’t write music, but someone in this room could write a piece of music, and give it to one musician, and next, next, next... Then hear the result. And the result may not be satisfactory even in a piece that is freshly written.


But not all contemporary works are in bad taste.


Not works! The interpretations might be.

The real question is the quality of sound. Now, the quality of sound is not a result of inspiration, it's a result of hard work: listening and searching. So, when you do have the piano responding and, in that way, collaborating with you, you enter into a covenant with it. Then, the instrument gives you more than it does to others, who dedicate less time.

So it's simple. You respect the instrument. You spend time with it and it gives you back more, and more, and more... And this is how you enter into the beautiful world of sounds. And it's all sound, Bach is sound, Chopin is sound. Something written yesterday is also sound – the instrument is the same, it doesn't have more or less keys just because the piece is written in the 21st century. It's still the same. And the same fingers. And that is what’s important when you listen to my recordings – the quality of sound. And clarity. It doesn't come easily.


I hear a lot of hard work in them. Especially your Chopin performances.


Michelangelo Buonarroti said that making sculptures liberates the figure inside the stone. So he got a block. He just saw that figure. And then he removed the rest of the stone, leaving his vision inside. Imagine how hard that is. I don't have to do half of it because pieces are written by others. But what I have to is to do justice to composers. I have to be respectful to them. And in order to be respectful, I have to find this golden line. Go inside, try to touch their inspiration. And then interpret it on the piano.

So, in many ways I have to constantly challenge my emotions which may come from that music and, during that process, liberate my interpretation from my personal sensations about the works. This is how I become objective.


What do you think has changed the most in your playing since the time of Chopin Competition?


The sound. I was constantly searching for sound variety. The quality of sound is also related to time. It does not exist as a result of inspiration or some kind of spontaneous relation. Instead, it’s mathematically calculated, and it exists within its time. It’s born, it lives, and it perishes.

So, the sound has a slot, like an airplane. The tower confirms to the pilot: “now it's your time for takeoff”. And he cannot do it together with other pilots, so there cannot be 10 flights departing at the same time. It's the same thing with sound.


Bach said that playing the piano is touching the key at the right moment. It's not only that. It's also about the right touch so that each sound has its own voice, role, and also forms a part of the sound picture. It becomes a part of a chord, harmony and melody at the same time. That is why the school of Franz Liszt is superior to other piano schools. Because Liszt treated the piano both as an orchestra and as a human voice. That started with Beethoven. Liszt developed it further. He is responsible for the piano becoming the king of all instruments. Chopin did his part, also experimenting with sound.


But he didn’t do it the same way as Liszt.


He didn't have the same foundation. Liszt had a firm foundation that came to him from Beethoven. Chopin didn't have that advantage, but he had other things. He had his natural talent. He never really studied polyphony. Chopin did not specialise in fugues nor any orchestral composition... But on the piano, he reached enormous heights thanks to his imagination and introspection.



Since we’re talking about interpretation and sound, I wanted to ask you...


I was now talking specifically about the quality of sound.

Young people like to copy. And then they come to a difficult moment if they try to copy any recordings including my own... They listen to them a hundred or a thousand times, but they can't really reproduce them. They don't have the knowledge of how to get the sound out of the piano. And it's an anatomical thing.


Purely physical?


Controlled by your ears and by your intellect. But in reality, there is a strict protocol that comes from anatomy. Strong muscles, connections, fingers. Then the shape of hand – sphere, like a cupola, St. Peter’s Cathedral. Centre of power in the hand. You see? [presents his hand in the playing position] Three principal muscles. Fingers are attached to muscles, they don’t play from air. It’s easy to illustrate, but very difficult to implement.


A lot of pianists are just copying others in their performances, but we can’t deny that there’s a group trying to find something for themselves, to stop copying.


But everyone has to copy. Everyone has a teacher. Unless you have fallen from the sky and you did everything as an auto-deduct. But in general you have to copy, to follow instructions before you can do something on your own. Painting is also like that. You go to a museum and you try to make a copy of something you see. You also paint from nature, looking at a wonderful lake or park, trying to interpret it on canvas. There is nothing wrong with it. But what is wrong is that with few exception there are no teachers now, in today's world.

Certain lines have been broken by the first and second World Wars. Centres of culture, where the art of performing was really brought up, where competition existed, and where artists functioned, were dispersed. People emigrated.

So, certain European cultural centers just stopped existing. They were deserted. Many people emigrated to the United States, for example. Of course, they planted some seeds, but the ambience was different. The architecture of piano schools was threatened and finally destroyed. Centers of power, of piano playing knowledge like Saint Petersburg or Vienna stopped existing. World Wars interrupted their development completely.


Do you think it's possible to rebuild those centers of piano playing?


No. It would take centuries. We would need a new Beethoven, a whole new set of things. Technology is also standing in the way. People think they can make a compact disc at home or perform in their kitchens with this ridiculous thing during the pandemic... Streaming. It has absolutely no value whatsoever.


What should a young pianist do in these circumstances?


Nothing. Get lucky.

Yes, I was lucky, I can’t deny it. I had an advantage – I was not afraid.

I was almost 16 or 17 years old when I realized that I knew nothing about the piano. I said to myself: “you want to fly and you don't even know how to walk”. And that changed everything. Doors of knowledge and culture were suddenly open to me. This is a fact of life, of destiny. You can’t repeat my destiny. I was given a tremendous advantage over others.


So everybody should work hard, and search for their own luck.


But why did luck come? Because I was pure in my heart. I rejected what I was told, because I didn't see purity, I didn't see authority, I didn't see capacity. I didn't see anything. It was just a superficial, primitive way to conquer prizes and so on, to have an existence based on lots of performances before others, taking this advice or that advice from them... There was nothing substantial in it, nothing that really goes into the art of piano playing.

Once during my studies in Moscow, by chance, I was invited to a birthday party. There was a Steinway piano. I just touched it. I played a part of the Chopin’s Sonata no. 3.

Suddenly, at that party, a lady came and said to me: “Play it again, but put your wrist down. Do not move your fingers up so much into the air. Just press them in”. Before even trying, I asked the lady where does this knowledge come from, because certainly it did not come from Moscow. She shocked by such immediate and precise question. And I learned that her knowledge came through a teacher, from a line of musicians related to conservatory of Saint Petersbourg, from the times before the revolution.


On the other hand, it seems like in history of music there are some people that were tremendously successful in passing on their knowledge with virtually complete success. One of them was Nadia Boulanger. At certain point it seemed that almost everybody who studied with her, thanks to her knowledge, was capable of achieving their artistic goals.


She probably had a rare talent in communication, but she was also a woman. That's very important. It's easier to learn from a woman than from a man, because there is a different ego.


In my case, the only woman who ever taught me piano playing was my mother.


Yes, women give birth and are dedicated to their children. Part of that dedication goes towards students. Perhaps they are softer in critisizing, but also firm. They have this possibility that nature gives them: physical reproduction of our race. That may be one of the reasons why Boulanger was like that. I don't know much about her, but she was an expert in polyphony. It came naturally to her.

And she had the capacity, capability to awaken the talent in others, to encourage them. That's probably what was her talent, too. I'm sure that there were other people who were comparably well equipped as professionals in polyphony, but who were not capable of inducing and lightening the fire. And also to spend time, follow and lead a talented person, help him to reach another step, another level. It takes a lot of time and dedication.


Before we wrap up, I want to ask you a very technical question. Why do you choose to perform from scores on stage?


Why not? I spend so much time with these scores. There’s so many markings on them, so many variations and shades of my work. A score is the part of my work. I don’t see any reason why I should not be using them. When you play solo, maybe it’s less needed. But while playing with an orchestra, just like yesterday, it should be there.


In my field, scores are necessary. I perform contemporary music. Some of the scores are written in such a complex manner that learning them by heart is almost impossible.


It’s also not necessary. You’re a player. If the audience closes their eyes, would they know whether or not you have the score before you? Indeed, part of brain’s capacity is occupied with remembering musical text. Memory is not like a flow of water, it’s cyclic, periodic. Your brain holds onto something in the score, and on that basis remembers a segment of music. A few bars. It consumes its energy. And when you have the score…


It works like a stimulant.


More like a mirror. With it, the brain is less occupied.


Mr. Pogorelich, thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation with you.


Thank you.

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