Before that, he showed why Sonata No.24, op.78 really is one of Beethoven’s best works in the genre. Two movements, lovingly played (with plenty attention to the “emotional” part, for those who need that in Beethoven) linked it wonderfully to op.111. The standard set by Maurizo Pollini’s rendition at the Kennedy Center last Wednesday was not quite reached, though.
The Croatian Pogorelich who became instantly world-famous when he was eliminated at the International Chopin Competition in 1980 (causing Martha Argerich to leave the jury in protest) was the Lang-Lang of his time. Now, nearing 50, playing to a half-filled and dimly lit Center for the Arts at the George Mason University in one of his first concerts in some time, he comes in darker, more subdued hues.
With his head shaven and in tails, he looked eerily much like Rachmaninov himself, whose Moments musicaux, op.16, No.1 he presented at the beginning of the second half. Under the soft touch of his huge hands, the work turned into fragile Whistler-like nocturnes. Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasy, another two-movement work, drifted and murmured about – not inappropriately for a piece that is to reflect the sea – until he picked up force towards the end. Visibly uncomfortable with applause, Pogorelich was busy getting right back to the Piano and Franz Liszt.
While the performance had already become better from Beethoven to the Russians, it was in the Hungaro-German’s three Etudes d’ execution transcendente that Pogorelich excelled. Perfectly suited to his playing and musical personality, he mastered the exercises with panache. Precision and romantic vigor were showed off in unforced flashiness. He simply ignored applause between the pieces and plowed right through Feux follets, Wilde Jagd and Apassionata. His offering of a staggering palette of pianos and pianissimos was unlike I have heard from any pianist before.
Just to curb the frenetic applause, Pogorelich threw in another Liszt Etude as a most substantial encore that, despite the evening’s persistent sense of an odd miscommunication between artist and audience, brought the house down. A few shy acknowledging nods later he was gone. The aftertaste was peculiar puzzlement: Was the dazzling Liszt the sign that this pianist was storming back to once-held acclaim, or was an obstinate Beethoven an explanation for his step out of the limelight? If presumably neither, the concert certainly was distinctively Pogorelich – an attribute that will continue to repel distracters and lure fans from all over the country.