If you want autobiographical pianism, a man in search of himself, looking back, remembering, lingering over a passage here, a note there, digging into the grottoes of the instrument, shaping cadences without end, lovingly, in anguish, stay with this recording, Ivo Pogorelich's first since his 1995 DG Chopin/Mussorgsky/Ravel London sessions. The price tag, though, won't be for everyone. He bends tempo and rhythm, intent, it seems, on pictures and soul states more than abstract designs. Upbeats can be delayed, phrases can be demarcated, prepared by commas of air. Crescendos frequently begin early, endings are often elongated. Dynamics can be minimal, then explosively, jaggedly, extreme. With Pogorelich, the page is a blueprint, rarely a gospel. Invariably – witness his concert decisions in recent years – he dislocates purists and literalists. Never one to appease the schoolroom, he takes divisive risks. Traffic lights aren't his concern. Rather, he prefers to meander unexpected roads, pausing, a poet might fancy, to watch a flower blossom, to catch the murmur of a cold mountain stream, to wonder at a skylark's song. Share the rocks and craggy outcrops, the hedonistic meadows of his world, wait for him, go along for the ride, and what he wants to express, not what we think he should or ought to say, will become clearer. We don't have to agree. But it will always be interesting.
Relatively intimate, less aired than their more famous cousins, his two middle-period Beethoven Sonatas (with repeats), dating roughly from between the 'Eroica' and 1809 French occupation of Vienna, find Pogorelich seeking characters and angles. Beethoven stipulates a single “tempo d'un menuetto” for the first movement of Opus 54, which Pogorelich translates into two tempo zones, one lyrical and flexible (in the crotchet=80-90 region, pulling back to half speed for the ascending trills of the coda), the other, the double-octave 'canon', forceful and brisk (crotchet=120-130). The 'slow' material he personifies less terpsichorally than reflectively (why split/jolt the second beats of bars 1 and 20, however, is inexplicable). The 'fast' passages are hammered out, percussiveness of attack masking the staccato/sforzando element. Crescendos (freely placed) and fortissimos aspire to the orchestrally weighted, the closing page momentarily foreshadowing the close of the slow movement from the Fifth Symphony. In the Schnabel/Richter tradition, Annie Fischer's too, though she's more belligerent, the moto perpetuo Finale is neither Allegretto nor dolce, with the left-hand legato slurring comparatively detached – but no-one will deny a race to the finish of rapidly involving engagement. The classically measured reference of Kempff, Arrau or Brendel couldn't be more remote.
Twin personalities decide the Schlegelian opening Allegro of Opus 78, Beethoven's forget-me-not Sonata in Christian Schubart's “triumph over difficulty” key – “reverberations of hard struggles which have at last been overcome”. With both repeats observed, the first subject group suggests a consoling presence. The second is lissom and coquettish, its playful triplets faster than the preceding 'light' semiquavers. Matters become graver and more sustained, the fortes insistent, with the reprise's added material from bar 60. Arguably, the slurred couplets and left-hand legatos of the Finale, a lively playground, could speak with greater exactness – but bucolic gruffness is the priority.
With Rachmaninov's Second Sonata, at just under half-an-hour, Pogorelich takes the night train north. In a performance radically broader and more suffering than one he gave in Nüremberg in December 1991 (20:45) – not to mention Berezovsky, Hamelin and Volodin who've posted sub-twenty-minute finishes in concert, or Weissenberg, relentlessly, neurotically home in fifteen – he traverses all shades of touch and emotion: a raw, naked narrative, not a little frightening. Granite mountains, old graveyards, dark craters lie before us. The ocean deep, Arctic winds, the other side of the moon. High melodies sent down-wind, flickers of someone's warmth, icily voiced bass chords, lonely chorales, smoky mystery, aching, despairing moodiness, angry outbursts. Confessionally, privately, Rachmaninov's notes are taken apart, tiny cells and torn fragments of phrase are invested with yearning, painful, edgy images. A pavane of memories and requiems, storms and pressed leaves. Pogorelich's deliberated handling of the piano, his re-creative aesthetic, brings to mind Nyiregyházi's manner and tone. Chords roar, octaves jangle, voices tumble into pedalled whirlpools, mantric low B-flats pound and toll. Smiles are few. What glitter there is, is veiled in muslin. Not everyman's Rachmaninov, but strangely fascinating.
Favouring a physically upfront Austrian Steinway, the sound-engineering opts for a resonantly 'big screen' encounter, flattering things like the opening and climaxes of the Rachmaninov but occasionally misting over more agitated detail. Pogorelich aficionados will not mind that the programme is short.