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.

pogorelichHe 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 entire orchestra"

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 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    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?

Ivo Pogorelich:    [Laughs]  It is according to the professional criteria.  I am a musician with diploma, so I am qualified to do my 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?

pogorelichIP:    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?

IP:    I’m 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?

IP:    Everyone 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 directlyLiszt being probably the most innovative pianist of all timesconsidering 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 composer?

IP:    Liszt as pianist, in this case.

BD:    Does that show through in his compositions?

IP:    It does for the most part because without well-heeled pianists and their pianism, his compositions are not attainable.

BD:    Ever?

IP:    I don’t know.  For the most part.

BD:    Are there some compositions that you play which are attainable?

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 twelvethat 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.

BD:    Maybe easy technically, but not musically?

IP:    It’s 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?

IP:    To 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 important?

IP:    Important 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 own idea of what the composer wants?

IP:    One should forever 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.  The 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 product?

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 of course 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 American cities.


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.

pogorelichBD:    Are there enough positive trends to outweigh the negatives?

IP:    Talented musicians are always a positive trend.

BD:    Are you a talented musician?

IP:    It is not for me to get into elaborating on the subject.

BD:    When 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.

BD:    You wouldn’t rather they were not there?

IP:    [Laughs] 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 the performance?

IP:    Yes.

BD:    Are there times when you make the discovery in performance?

IP:    Yes, 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.

BD:    When you’re sitting at the piano, are you playing an instrument, or does that instrument become part of you?

IP:    One cannot ignore the nature of the instrument.  It is the same if you are caressing a child, or if you 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?

IP:    The 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.

pogorelichBD:    [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.]

IP:    This 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, traveling 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 there.  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 life experiences?

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 natural beauty.

BD:    You 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 the 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 times.

BD:    But you wouldn’t want that experience again?

IP:    No, one doesn’t go through various experiences in order to repeat them.  There are some experiences that are one-offs.

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, and 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 this particular 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 sense?  Do you mean in terms of expression or of expressiveness, or the same repertory?

BD:    The repertory, I assume, is similar or the same.

IP:    Yes.

BD:    Then are you conscious of the public that will be listening at another time?

pogorelichIP:    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 microphones.

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?

IP:    [Reacting 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?

IP:    [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?

IP:    Yes, 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 stage?

IP:    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 approach, 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 the 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 limitations, too.

BD:    You don’t do finger exercises?

IP:    Muscles, tendons, everything.

BD:    Are you part athlete?

IP:    Well, 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 fingers?

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?

IP:    Yes, unfortunately, both.

BD:    And a spiritual thing?

IP:    Yes, 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?

pogorelichIP:    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?

IP:    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 piano fun?

IP:    No.

BD:    [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 talking about 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.

BD:    I appreciate your taking the time, and I appreciate your thoughts on all of this.

IP:    Thank you very much.


© 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 website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as 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 like 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.