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Ivo Pogorelich has long divided opinion among listeners. So when the news was announced that Sony Classical had signed him to a recording contract, with the first CD recital due for release on 23 August, responses were split between delirium at the resurrection of the dead and weariness that might greet the latest instalment of a hackneyed television series.

Pogorelich has previously produced imaginative, characterful recordings of Scarlatti and Prokofiev, but also indigestible Brahms and Mozart. Even in the same piece he sometimes veers between dazzling digital feats and irate thumping, with a right hand tracing graceful arabesques while the lefthand hammers away relentlessly. In recent years, some performances have unintentionally recreated the aura of the late, lugubrious self-explorations at the keyboard by Thelonious Monk.

So, has Sony enriched the piano world by issuing this artist’s first studio recording in over 20 years? Or is it more like the disinterment in the 1970s of the Hungarian-American keyboard prodigy Ervin Nyiregyházi (1903–1987), who was rescued from decades-long obscurity only to produce frightful new recordings? The answer is nuanced, like most of Pogorelich’s career.

Unlike keyboard performers who produce vacuous displays with no notion of style or emotional content, Pogorelich’s artistic choices have substance – even if not the substance that stylistically informed listeners might wish for – but his reasons for those choices remain ever obscure. He is surely provocative, but never superficial.

The new Sony CD contains a consequential programme of Beethoven’s Sonata No 22 in F major Op 54 and Sonata No 24 in F-sharp major Op 78, as well as Rachmaninov’s Sonata No 2 in B-flat minor Op 36. What might be termed a split personality is most evident in the Rachmaninov, where aggression undermines the patrician elegance of the musical message. This is an unexpectedly percussive and grumpy bear of a Rachmaninov. Whether the result sounds artificially imposed or revelatory will depend upon the taste and temperament of the listener. When tempos are not very fast, Pogorelich tends to wander as if losing interest – or losing the plot. Although capable of brilliant detail, as in the second movement of Beethoven’s Op 78, the overall approach is excessively belligerent and unruly, even for Beethoven.

But then the Pogorelich legend was born amid ill-feeling when, as a tousle-haired, pouting matinee idol, he was dubbed the Croatian sensation, until his looks became sleeker and decidedly feline like a potentially lethal big cat. As Pogorelich’s publicists like to remind us, at the 1980 Chopin competition in Warsaw he was not advanced to the finals, leading Martha Argerich – who deemed him a ‘genius’ – to resign from the jury in protest. The genius himself scornfully explained to the Los Angeles Times in January 1993:

‘The Soviet Bloc authorities had decided months before the competition that it was politically necessary to have a North Vietnamese winner … My decision to participate was not at all welcome. I was told I should wait a year, for the Tchaikovsky Competition, when I would have the first prize guaranteed. It makes me laugh when I read about how different styles of Chopin – new Chopin, old Chopin – confused the judges. That’s all nonsense – the winner was chosen in accordance with the policy of the government.’

This dismissive skewing of history neglects to note that the deserving winner that year was Dang Thai Son, born in Hanoi, who had been extracted from his war-torn homeland and sent to study in Moscow with Vladimir Natanson, a pupil of composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg, and later with Dmitri Bashkirov. It was a Chopin competition, after all, and Dang produced – and still produces – enchantingly poetic interpretations of that composer, whereas Pogorelich’s Chopin often sounded – and still sounds – somewhat ungracious and selfish.

Bogdan Roscic, president of Sony Classical, has called Pogorelich’s discography ‘one of the seven wonders of recorded music,’ unfortunately reducing the number of keyboard wonders on record to a mere few while exaggerating the status of his company’s latest signatory among them. Adamant Ivophiles might be advised to listen to Artur Schnabel, Solomon, Claude Frank, Wilhelm Kempff and Rudolf Serkin in the Beethoven sonatas and the Vladimirs – Horowitz and Ashkenazy – in the Rachmaninov to gain perspective and avoid inapposite superlatives.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2019 - ©Rhinegold Publishing