Dec 9th 2019

Pogo bombs at Bordeaux’s brilliant piano festival

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

 

Bordeaux Piano

 

Four weeks of brilliant piano performance came to a close Saturday night (Dec. 7, 2019) at the Bordeaux Auditorium, leaving a record of full-house attendance and memories of some of the world’s greatest piano talent, including Grigory Sokolov, Philippe Bianconi and Arcadi Volodos. Only Ivo Pogorelich bombed.

Bordeaux is just far enough off the main line of touring musicians to miss many of the superstars, but this tenth anniversary of “l’Esprit du Piano”, created and organized by Paul Arnaud Péjouan, boldly corrected its reputation for provincialism. Bordeaux is beginning to accommodate players who are much in demand worldwide.

Of the 13 concerts and recitals, I focused on four performances that I felt typified the series. 

Philippe Bianconi, a veteran international soloist and ensemble player, shined in a rare arrangement of the Brahms “Requiem allemand” that featured a 51-voice choir and two Steinway grands. At the other piano was Bianconi’s former student, the very promising John Gode, now studying at the Paris Conservatory. This reduction of the orchestral version rendered the score more intimate and emotional than its original and the piano parts were nicely integrated with the powerful voices of the Bordeaux Opera chorus.

Grigory Sokolov pulled out his often-performed Mozart favorites, including the charming and deceptively simple Rondo in A minor K. 511. Following the break, he sailed through two Brahms Klavierstücke (op. 118 and 119) before a raucous reception from the audience that would not let him go until he played six encores. All evening, Sokolov demonstrated his control of dynamics, keeping a light left hand in check while blasting through the Brahms.

Arcadi Volodos provided a rich program of four Liszt pieces, climaxing the first part with the Ballade No. 2 in B minor. Volodos, one the world’s top ten living pianists by any measure, brought his Russian sonority to bear on this alternately lyrical and stormy creation. Following the interval, he tackled the Schumann Humoreske op. 20 with his signature verve. He was called back for five encores, ending with a rarely heard Frederico Mompou “Musica callada” miniature. The audience embraced him without reserve.

The letdown of the entire two weeks was the painful spectacle of Ivo Pogorelich, oddly dressed up in black tie and tails, preening to the audience before doing one of the Bach Suites anglaises, No. 3 in G minor, a piece he had recorded brilliantly as a young man when he was in his prime. In this performance he squinted at the printed score propped up in front of him – rarely seen from an established pianist – as he improvised tempi and broke up phrases.

He managed to destroy the cohesion of the Bach structure (allemand, sarabande, gavotte) by allowing his “fleeting thoughts” free rein. Thumping the keyboard, stopping in mid-phrase, applying strange rubatos, irritated fans who remembered his early years as the young superstar from Belgrade. 

His Beethoven sonata No. 11, two short Chopin pieces and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit were equally eccentric in parts. The disjointed Beethoven perhaps came from his 20-year break from public performances during which he was “searching for more color and tone from the piano …” He added in an interview in International Piano that in Beethoven the difficulty is not in the virtuoso turns, it is in is “between the notes  -- that’s where the virtuosity is”.

Applause was lukewarm and the audience did not demand an encore, nor did Pogorelich offer one. He spent two or three minutes bowing repeatedly as several dozen spectators made for the exit. Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over.

One pianist friend told me his interpretations were in such bad taste “that he has become a caricature of himself.” Another professional pianist told me he stayed away from the performance, knowing it would be “too embarrassing”.

As Pogorelich said in his interview, in a live performance you can capture “a certain fleeting thought … it is the art of the moment, never to be repeated.” One hopes he was serious.

 

END

 

 


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