Pianist Ivo Pogorelich
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Ivo Pogorelich [Pogorelić] was
born October 20, 1958, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), to a
Croatian father and a Serbian mother. Following the breakup of
Yugoslavia, Pogorelich became a Croatian citizen.
He received his first piano lessons in Belgrade when he
was seven. Five years later, he was invited to Moscow to continue his
studies at the Central Music School with Evgeny Timakin. Later he
graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. In 1976 he began studying
intensively with the pianist and teacher Aliza Kezeradze, who passed on
to him the tradition of the Liszt-Siloti school. They were married from
1980 until her death in 1996. He won the Casagrande Competition in
Terni, Italy in 1978 and the Montreal International Music Competition
in 1980. However he became famous for the prize he didn't win. In 1980
he entered the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and was
eliminated in the third round. The Argentine pianist Martha Argerich
proclaimed him a genius and left the jury in protest.
Pogorelich gave his debut recital in New York's Carnegie Hall in 1981.
He debuted in London the same year, and since then he has created a
sensation with his performances in all the great concert halls
throughout the world, in the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, South America
and Israel. He has played many solo recitals worldwide and has played
with some of the world's leading orchestras including the Boston
Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker,
Berliner Philharmoniker, Orchestre de Paris and many others. Wherever
and whenever he plays, his stunning interpretations of the music
confirm the originality of his talent and intellect. The New York Times once wrote, "He
played each note exactly, with such feeling, such expression. He was an
Pogorelich gives much back to the community by supporting many young
musicians. In 1986 he established a foundation in Croatia to further
the careers of young performers from his homeland. Since 1989, the
annual Ivo Pogorelich Festival in Bad Wörishofen has taken place.
The aim of the festival is to support promising young musicians at the
beginning of their careers by giving them the opportunity of performing
together with renowned artists. In December 1993, he founded the
"International Solo Piano Competition" in conjunction with the
Ambassador Foundation in Pasadena, California. Its mission is to help
young musicians develop their career with the first prize of $100,000.
In 1994, the pianist set up a foundation in Sarajevo to raise money to
build a hospital and to provide medical support for the people of
Sarajevo. Numerous concerts are being planned over the next several
years under the auspices of UNESCO. Pogorelich also gives many charity
concerts in support of the Red Cross, the rebuilding of Sarajevo, or
the fight against illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis. In
1988, he was named an "Ambassador of Goodwill" by UNESCO.
Ivo Pogorelich became an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist in 1982,
and has made over 15 recordings with DGG, such as W.A. Mozart's Piano Sonatas, J.S. Bach's Suites,
Franz Liszt and Scriabin Piano
Sonatas and the Tchaikovsky Piano
Concerto No.1. Other releases include Chopin's Piano Sonata No.2, Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and the
Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.6.
Much has been written — both
positive and negative — about Ivo Pogorelich. This
webpage will not wade into any of that. I am simply presenting
the conversation which I had with the pianist in April of 1999, when he
was in Chicago. As is my custom, I care not for personal matters
nor for aggrandizement of any kind. Both on the air at WNIB,
Classical 97 for over twenty-five years, and now on the internet with
these interviews, I discuss with my guests their views on music and its
many and varied facets. I let each guest have their shot, letting
them speak without hoopla or blandishment of any kind. Their music
— and their thoughts — are presented, and my task is not to
embellish in any way. Even the selection of recording-covers to
show on this webpage is done for the variety of photographic images,
and not the merits of the sound on the discs.
Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .
Thank you very much for seeing me during your very
busy schedule. You have such a huge range of
material to choose from. How do you select which pieces of music
you will play, and which pieces you will let go?
[Laughs] It is according to the professional
criteria. I am a musician with diploma, so I am qualified to do
work, and there are certain criteria that I try to satisfy.
BD: If you
are supposed to do your work, what exactly
is your work?
IP: My work is to
listen, and if I do it well then
the public can listen well, too, to the music that I play. In
order to listen well to what one produces with one’s fingers, one has
to be very cautious and very persistent. A lot of energy and
time goes into it.
BD: You have
to be cautious of what?
dealing with the material belonging to the
people who are for the most part no longer alive, and dealing
with such material, the course is picked.
BD: Not just
by the tradition that is built up over years?
belongs more or less to a certain
stream, to a certain branch, usually described by the term ‘school’,
such as a
piano school meaning the branch of pianists. I had the privilege
to be trained in the tradition which perhaps is the purest of all that
comes from Ferencz Liszt directly — Liszt being
probably the most innovative pianist of all times — considering
the magnitude of his personality,
and the inventiveness that he had displayed in his piano works.
BD: So Liszt
as pianist, rather than Liszt as
IP: Liszt as
pianist, in this case.
BD: Does that
show through in
IP: It does
for the most part because without
well-heeled pianists and their pianism, his compositions are not
IP: I don’t
know. For the most part.
BD: Are there
some compositions that you play which
IP: I don’t
play compositions which I find are
valid, and that may come as a surprise to many people. I
remember when I played certain repertory — namely
a sonata by Mozart
which was considered one of the easy pieces that children play,
usually, at the age between nine and twelve — that
someone remarked how
difficult that music is to produce. It is true; there is no
easy music. It may appear as easy, but there is no easy music.
easy technically, but not musically?
never easy technically, because
technique is only to serve the purpose of music.
BD: Then let
me ask the question directly.
What is the purpose of music?
recreate. When dealing with the
compositions that are left and existing in a form of score, we are
recreating them every time we play them, and that is to give them
life. In order to do that, and in order to get the meaning of the
music across to the public, we consider ourselves to be important in
the process of it.
BD: Are you
to whom? Important to the process
of music-making? Yes. For the evolution of pianism?
Yes. I do occupy a place there.
BD: When you
try to get something of the music
across, is it the composer you are trying to get across, or is it your
idea of what the composer wants?
separate the composer as a personality and his product. It is not
to say that if we knew what Brahms was doing on a given
Thursday at three o’clock in the afternoon we are equipped with
all this data. That doesn’t help us to understand his
music. There is not a necessary connection between the two.
product of the composer is what we are dealing with. It is his
music, and it can be at times completely different from the image of
the author, or indeed, what we can learn accidentally from the
biography that is available.
BD: Then how
much of yourself do you put into that
IP: As a
professional musician, you put all
what you can.
BD: Does the
composer ever demand too much of you?
IP: I don’t
know. It’s always a
question of achievement. If you are immersed in something, then
the work might be overpowering and colossal, and often very
physically demanding. But I’m not against it.
BD: How do
you divide your career between solo works
and orchestral, concerto, and chamber works?
IP: I do
play, from time to time, with
orchestras, but for the most part my work is dedicated to solo
recitals. I will be coming to the United States later this
year, in the months of September and October, presenting Rachmaninoff
Concerto No. 2 in various
BD: Is it
harder to select a concerto rather than solo works because you have
complete control over the solo performance?
IP: No, it is
not at all difficult to select a
concerto. What is difficult is that we are living in a world
where orchestras are under tremendous strain, mostly financially.
Conductors travel very much, and therefore they have little time to
dedicate. Also, there are these famous union rights, which I
think are very often going against the very purpose, and against the
music. Sometimes one has a feeling, having experienced
working in the United States, that the music doesn’t come first.
I feel that the amount of
rehearsal time, and the way the rehearsals are distributed is wrong,
and I don’t suppose that the musicians would be exploited if they were
to give half an hour more when it is needed, rather than
having the union member jump with a stopwatch and stop you in the
middle of the rehearsal. These are the things which I consider
to be of the negative kind.
BD: Are there enough
positive trends to outweigh the negatives?
musicians are always a positive trend.
BD: Are you a
IP: It is not
for me to get into elaborating on
you’re performing, are you conscious of the
audience that is to your right?
IP: Yes, I
am. I am
someone who enjoys very attentive audiences, and I’m very, very happy
about that. I don’t get disturbed, ever. I don’t have any
problems with the audiences being present.
wouldn’t rather they were not there?
No, no. If they were not there? Yes, I have that as
well. It happens in the rehearsals, when the audiences are not
there. That is one part of my profession that I probably like
especially. Rehearsals are very important to imagine that
you are alone in a vast concert hall! The whole space and time
belongs to you, and you are sitting at the piano and producing
sounds. Very often you can go in an unexpected, experimental
direction, and end up with some wonderful inspiring discovery.
BD: Then do
you make sure you bring that discovery to
BD: Are there
times when you make the discovery in
yes. There are various things, but nothing can be done without
preparation, so there should be
no doubt about that. Here, I agree with Pablo Picasso who said
that inspiration does come after eight or nine hours of hard work.
BD: Eight or
nine hours with each piece, or eight or
nine hours with each group?
IP: He was
probably referring to the painting, and I
have to refer to practicing, spending time at the piano, regardless of
what I practice.
BD: Do you
feel that you are painting with sounds?
IP: This is a
desirable situation, yes. If you
can achieve that, you are a master of your world.
you’re sitting at the piano, are you playing
an instrument, or does that instrument become part of you?
cannot ignore the nature of the
instrument. It is the same if you are caressing a child, or if
are facing the tiger. They are two separate realities. If
you are listening to the orchestra performance, or if you are listening
to the piano performance, there is a nature, and each one has its
nature which cannot be ignored. It has to be respected and has
to be given time.
BD: Are most
pianos you encounter more like children, or more like tigers?
instrument is such that what
you find on the concert stages of the world is different, of different
quality, of different age. The climate doesn’t do the best thing
to the pianos. In this country that is very renowned because of
the high humidity, and hence the air conditioning. The piano’s
lifespan is probably shortened in the United States, but that also
depends. The condition of the instrument depends on the
qualifications of the tuner and the dedication of the tuner. So
there can be surprises, as well. I’m someone who is against
carrying an instrument and transporting the instrument. I find
this to be a form of abuse.
BD: [Being only
half-serious] Perhaps you should transport a tuner or
technician with you. [See my Interview with Franz Mohr,
Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-92.]
would be a possibility, but people
have realities of life. Tuners are married; they have families,
and they have their jobs and workplaces, so it’s very difficult.
Of course, in the ideal world, the public should be traveling to the
ideal concert hall, equipped with the ideal piano, serviced by the
ideal tuner, produced by the ideal pianist, and probably traveling by
the ideal airline company.
BD: How close
do you come to the ideal?
IP: To the
ideal you come close by gaining
experience. When I was a student, in the year 1978, I came to the
United States for 44 concerts. I was doing community concerts,
by bus, and that remains the sole unique, major performing experience
that I still use when it comes to needing it, when it comes to
requesting any of what I have experienced during that trip.
Imagine that sometimes we will travel and there will be no time to
prepare for the performance. The audiences will just be
Once we had an accident. There was ice on the road and we
arrived very late, so I didn’t even have the time to warm up and I
still had to perform. These are very valuable experiences, and
if you happen to be very young, as I was at that time — I was 20 years
old — then you, of course, gain from something like that.
BD: I assume,
though, that you continue to learn from
IP: Yes, yes,
I do, but I will probably never visit
the United States quite in the same way as that. I thought it was
very charming, and also there are parts of this country which
are absolutely fabulously beautiful. When Americans have fun,
they go to Paris or Venice. How often do they go to South Dakota,
or Montana? These beautiful places are some that I do
remember. They have colossal
should be a spokesman for American tourism!
IP: No, you
see for us Europeans,
America is New York and a few other places like
Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago to a certain extent. But
America that I know is different, and very few Americans know it in
quite the same way. It was more than two months of travel,
meeting people, and spending time with the people in their communities,
learning about how the small American cities live. I thought it
was a very, very interesting experience, and professionally it
was tremendously important. I had to perform the same piece 44
BD: But you
wouldn’t want that experience
IP: No, one
doesn’t go through various experiences in order to repeat them.
There are some experiences that are
BD: Would you
advise other young pianists to do this
kind of thing?
IP: If they
would be fortunate enough to
have such a chance, of course. It’s one of the most important
things. It is nice to participate in international competitions,
compete and be a part of the concerts, but it is most important to
gain experience. Seeing yourself and performing at the
small theaters is very important for their formation. I have had
experience in this very country, which to this day remains one of the
important experiences. For me, it was to learn how not to depend
on the circumstances, how to disregard the circumstances, and how to
just pursue the goal, which is to deliver a performance.
BD: So you
are completely self-reliant?
IP: I had to
learn this the hard way.
BD: Do you
play the same for the public as
you do for the recording microphone?
IP: In what
you mean in terms of expression or of expressiveness, or the same
repertory, I assume, is similar or the
BD: Then are
you conscious of the public that will
be listening at another time?
IP: A pair of ears
of the sound engineer is the
public in that case. It is a substitute, so you never are really
alone. You do play for someone behind the glass, behind the
BD: Does it
encourage you to know that people will be
listening in their living rooms, and their cars, and elsewhere at a
remote a time from when you actually played?
to my suggestion] And in elevators! [Both laugh] No,
it doesn’t mean anything to me. People
are free to do whatever they want. It is their choice. If
they want, they
can listen to the records in their kitchens, but some people like to
listen to the music with candles and dim lights. Other people are
happy to listen to the CDs when they
drive their cars to their jobs.
BD: So you’re
happy with all of those?
[Laughs] It is none of my interest to think of
that, or to be preoccupied with that.
BD: Are you
pleased with the recordings that you have
put out so far?
because I never wanted to compromise the
quality, and therefore I never did anything excessive in terms of
quantity of the titles that I present, enabling myself to have enough
time to prepare.
BD: Is it
correct to assume that
everything you’ve committed to disc you have performed on the concert
Yes. There are certain exceptions. I
had once recorded a piece which I took to performing for the
recording, but that was an exception. But the preparation
nevertheless was similar to the preparation of any other project.
BD: Would the
concerts that you give of any piece be preparation for the recording?
IP: The whole
essence is in the time that
one dedicates to one’s job. When coupled with professional
you are sure to arrive at the good result. You cannot miss.
There are two positions one can take — one of those is to serve, and
the other is to manipulate. There is no third position. So
if you are ready to serve, then you are ready
to give your time, your effort, and all that comes with it. If
you are not ready to do that, then you fall into the other category.
BD: I assume
you serve gladly?
IP: I find it
difficult, because with every new
project it doesn’t become easier. It doesn’t get easier.
It is always difficult. Assuming that you have played certain
amount of Beethoven sonatas doesn’t mean that the next one will be
easier, perhaps just because the expectations are also higher every
time you approach a piece of music. You become more critical as
time goes on, and also there is an aging process which doesn’t
help! It’s Hell when you are aging from when you are. It’s
the physical work as well, you see.
Playing the piano is not only mental, so there are physical
BD: You don’t
do finger exercises?
BD: Are you
yes. I do exercises. In fact, I
am coached by a very, very high class specialist, someone who is a
doctor of physical culture, who writes books, and is at the
moment preparing a book in which I’m participating in the preparation,
which is dedicated to sport for professionals, people who are
professionals of different professions, usually not considered likely
to do sports. I, for one, was always told not to do
anything, because it was considered dangerous to do anything.
BD: For the
IP: Yes, but
there are certain sports that have
to be avoided, like skiing, definitely. Horse riding is also very
risky, but there are other things that one can do. I came to the
point where I’m working with free weights, again, after a lot of
preparation, and being guided by a very,
very professional coach.
BD: So it’s a
mental thing and a physical thing?
BD: And a
yes. That is true.
BD: When you
come back to a work that you might not
have played for a few years, do you get a clean score and start over,
or do you build on what you’ve learned?
IP: It’s a very
interesting and intelligent question
which I have never been asked before, and I have just had experiences
which are quite to the point. One does sometimes want to have a
new score. I had an experience of turning one particular
score into a jungle. There was finally less bare space left!
BD: Oh, by
all the pencil marks?
Yes. Too much intervention. It is true — sometimes
one wants it, but also other times you don’t particularly
intervene. It depends on what sort of work you do. I often
like to challenge myself with changing fingering, with looking into the
phrase, looking for a stem of the phrase and then sometimes arriving
at the most paradoxical conclusions. I do that as well, and
sometimes I require a fresh score for that.
BD: One last
question — is playing
[Genuinely surprised] No???
IP: No, it is
not fun. It is a very serious
undertaking, very far from fun. This is a British conception, to
pretend that music-making is fun. It is not fun. It is a
form of art.
BD: In the
end, though, is it all worth it?
IP: I think
it is. It all depends... but we
are getting into philosophy, and that is probably not for this
interview. If you are a sportsman and you end up with medals,
winning competitions and so on, and you are asked that question, what
is the reply? What do you think? How many of them have
said, graced with medals and world-class results, that it wasn’t worth
it? Did any one of them say that?
BD: I would
assume, though, that each one would come
with their own ideas, and this is what I’m looking for from you.
IP: We are
dedication, without which this interview wouldn’t be possible, because
you would be interviewing someone who has had himself dedicated to the
subject, not to me. Because I happen to have been the one who
has dedicated my life to that, I’m being interviewed now for the
benefit of your listeners.
appreciate your taking the time, and I
appreciate your thoughts on all of this.
IP: Thank you
© 1999 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 11,
1999. Portions were broadcast on WNIB four months later.
This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.