Was the Chopin jury not right to eliminate Pogorelich?

Was the Chopin jury not right to eliminate Pogorelich?


norman lebrecht

April 12, 2015

An essay for Slipped Disc by the Tchaikovsky Competition silver-medallist, Peter Donohoe, in response to recent negative reviews of the Chopin Competition contestant, Ivo Pogorelich, who was eliminated in the third round.

Peter Donohoe  - English pianist, May 1993.


In 1980 the marketing industry, the critics, the media and thousands of young pianists created an artistically suicidal situation for an obviously highly talented but not yet fully developed pianist. The legendary competition scandal – now having acquired the status of folklore – with its highly public and publicised walk-out by a minority of the err…democratic…jury who disagreed with the majority, catapulted him to international superstardom.The story was seized upon by the anti-competition lobby and used for axe-grinding purposes. Extraordinary amounts of money were made on the back of it, by many more people than the one pianist at the centre. And those qualities of his playing that were perceived by many teachers to have constituted the reason for his massive initial success were used as examples for their students to follow.

The havoc that followed in the piano competition world as a result of the embarrassment created is still being felt nearly 35 years later. As a member of several juries over the last twenty years or so, I have often encountered the elephant in the jury meeting room, and I suspect that the elephant is also present in many competitors’ practise rooms. [Non-British readers may well not have a clue what I am talking about here. Please forgive my silly language – it means that a metaphorical cloud hangs in the form of a collective received memory over the world of piano competitions – is that better? Probably not….]

The desire by some of those who make money out of classical artists to repeat the phenomenon of fame through notoriety has resulted in one sensationally sexy, audacious or immature (or all three) superstar after another; this has been by no means limited to pianists. Almost all of them – but sadly not all – have been extremely talented, but that has rarely been the reason for the hype.

One of the side-effects of such a situation is that many critics and members of the public – plus, I am guessing, many pianists and teachers – flock to hear these superstars when they sniff the possibility of the performances being awful. Thus, the process becomes a cycle – a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Do we see what we have done? We have fallen into the age old trap of putting someone on a pedestal and then shooting them down. The pedestal in this case was one on which only the most balanced, mature and level-headed could stand any chance of survival – even then it would be well-nigh impossible. And then we pilloried him, and continue to do so for pursuing the path we laid for him. By the way, when I use the word ‘we’, I do not mean to include me, or indeed most of you dear readers; I mean the music ‘industry’ as a whole.

The performances Pogorelich gave at the Chopin Competition 35 years ago were by all accounts excellent, although eccentric. His excellence was undoubtedly the cause of a large part of the public’s – and a minority of the jury’s – support. But the eccentricities were possibly the cause of his elimination from the semi-final by the majority verdict, although we will probably never really know what the members of the jury were thinking – and, to an extremely large extent, they formed the element that created his huge international success.

“But so what?” many people will be thinking. “He sells, he is a star, and he gives us something to talk about.”

Well this is ‘so what’: how about we put the music – plus the artists’ long-term heritage and indeed their own artistic survival and development – first? Would it be the right time to begin to think of the performing arts as not being part of the short-term commercial world. Would it be unreasonable to expect the ‘industry’ to stop thinking of artists as performing seals or prototype machines, and their work as ‘product’ – to apply to the arts world slightly different criteria to the one in which you try out a crappy new fast food item by hyping it for a while and seeing if it reels in massive profits, and move on to another if it doesn’t? [Actually I shouldn’t use the word ‘crappy’, because the same principles apply to good new products in shops – however good they are, their continuance seems to depend on nothing more than how many buy them. But typing the word ‘crappy’ does feel good – and it has passed through the spellchecker, so I am not doing a James Rhodes.]

>Ivo Pogorelich bowing after concert, 1 March 2013
If IP had had the chance to take his 1980 elimination in the same way as everyone else has to, and gone on to enter further competitions, perhaps by that time he would have learned not to over-indulge in eccentricities and would have developed musically – and personally – in a different way.Perhaps he would have fulfilled his undertaking to take part in the same Tchaikovsky Competition as I did in 1982; it was, after all, scheduled that he should – two years after the Warsaw debacle – his astoundingly glamorous mugshot plus intended repertoire appeared in the competition booklet, leading to an assumption amongst the more naïve amongst us that we didn’t stand a chance against him.

Perhaps by then he or his teachers would have ironed out his tendency towards eccentricity and he would have gone on to enjoy a longer-term great and more widely respected career – his talent certainly warranted it on the basis of certain YouTube clips from the time (e.g. a performance from Japan of Scriabin’s Etude Op 8 No. 2 which isn’t eccentric at all, and demonstrates what he might have become), and in particular his recordings of Ravel, Prokofiev and Chopin from the early 1980s. It was just that his behaviour was that of a prat, and his musical ideas often narcissistic and divisive; these needed to be knocked out of him before fame froze his immaturity and gave him a permanent complex.

But instead of that, the music lover and record collector was subjected to truck-loads of pop-style publicity based on his eccentricities – not on his superb qualities, but on his spoilt, sulky-child-like personality, his tendency towards musical wilfulness, and his general outrageousness. At the same time, there was general consensus on how good his first recordings were, but let us not imagine for a moment that these constituted the main reason for so much chatter and endless twaddle bilging from the bullshit hydrant that is much of the marketing industry.

Not so long afterwards it became almost fashionable and predictable that he would be trashed both publicly and by a chorus of other pianists bitching, complaining – and telling stories that were undoubtedly subject to Chinese whisper syndrome.

All of this contributed to the cultism that surrounded him, and still does to some extent. The trashings continue, and the eccentricities have grown; large numbers of us seeming to almost enjoy the tearing apart of artists whom others – and sometimes the very same people – put up there in the first place.

That is not to say that the negative reviews over the years have been wrong – I wouldn’t really know about that, as I have not heard IP live more than a handful of times, and in any case it would be inappropriate for me to publicly criticise or otherwise another pianist of my own generation. However, I have heard about those reviews and sometimes read them and the subject is simply tedious beyond measure and it has the built-in characteristic of perpetuating its own irrelevance.

Simply put, he shouldn’t have yet been in a position to receive such a series of sometimes humiliating attacks when he was still a young and developing artist. One or two wonderful recordings and the apparent personality of an outrageous narcissist should not have been enough to have placed him in the precarious position of – for a short time at least – that of the best known pianist of his generation.

Why can we not realise that he is not a Furby? He is not there for the use of the smart-arsed to be prodded, to be made to giggle, howl and cry to amuse us. He is a human being, with obvious complexes that the music world did the opposite of ignoring – instead finding it amusing to capitalise on them and thus provoking him into exaggerating them and indulging them still further.

His performances are reviewed far and wide – I believe I have thus far read nine from his RFH concert alone, and all of them have been negative to the point of humiliation. It shows that we have failed a potentially great artist – many of us have never had the experience of performing on a high level; we fail to grasp the certain fact that, however arrogant or otherwise the artist is, his or her expectations of how the public and the critics are expected to respond will probably directly affect the way they play. If you treat an artist to endless alternation between ridiculous cult-based hype and a regular pillorying, you will quite possibly destroy that artist’s confidence even if he or she is level headed.

Of course I realise that the respective sources of the hype and the reviews are different, but that merely indicates that we tend to respond far too much to hype – in one direction or the other. A minimum of nine reviews for a concert that large numbers expected to be little more than gossip-fodder? Can you imagine how many really excellent but unknown artists pass through London without so much as one? That the media takes the trouble to write so much about an artist whom they mostly collectively despise says it all about the readership – [‘We get the media we deserve’.]

It seems that many felt that his RFH recital was poor – with the exception of his Brahms Paganini Variations. OK. So what if it was? I am sure there were some very fine things about it, and, in any case, every artist does a poor concert sooner or later. Why does it have to plastered all over facebook, the twittersphere, the blogosphere and every other sphere that is now available to the self-important and the opinionated? “Oh my God, did you hear about his simply appalling performance the other night? Tee hee hee! You would not have believed the distortions and the ludicrousness of the tempi! Although of course there were some moments in which you gazed with awe at the colours and all the exquisite shades of pianissimo. But I simply had to leave as soon as possible at the end in case he played an encore. Ho ho ho!” Yes it’s hilarious, isn’t it? Almost as worthwhile reporting via every orifice available that Madonna fell over somewhere.

In other news, the actual winner of the 1980 International Chopin Competition, Dang Thai Son – a superb, although very self-effacing and modest pianist whose talent has been consistently admired by serious music lovers in many countries, but whose name is all but unknown amongst the purveyors of Pogorelich gossip – is now a professor at the Université de Montréal. Almost no one I have spoken to since the offending RFH recital went viral had any memory of who had actually won the 1980 competition – this is particularly telling as I had until nearly two weeks after the event been surrounded by professional musicians and serious students of music, including pianists, at a chamber music festival since the day before the recital. It is despite the fact that Dang’s career has been extremely impressive to those who have followed him, and been genuinely interested in great piano playing, as opposed a temporary victim to an über-marketable product.


Could it be that the jury majority decision was right? Has anyone considered that possibility? Under the right circumstances the music world might well by now have had two serious and thoughtful mature pianists on its hands – one whose First Prize was fully valued by the media, and thus respected in turn by the public, and the other who may have emerged as a winner some time later – either in Warsaw or at some other major competition – when he had grown up.

Instead, there is a risk that the latter will join the ranks of other geniuses screwed up by the commercial world and a lack of love for the real person [I am not equating their respective levels of talent, so please don’t jump down my online throat] – yet another phenomenal talent destroyed by the ‘industry’, with its instinct for honing in on the superficial, and disinterest in the long term. If we stopped thinking that for a competition jury to place an artist in any position other than first is to dismiss them as failures, then a potentially great artist being eliminated because of certain aspects of the playing at his earlier stage would not have created a marketable scandal. We need to find enough maturity within ourselves to put a halt to the endless search for novelty.

And, just to be clear: I don’t know about the majority of you, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind about Pogorelich’s natural ability.

It is just the effect of all the swooning worship, alternating with the vicious condemnation that I find worrying.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Translation: IP was screwd by the music business. Who was it again who said: ‘Competitions are for horses’?

    • Alistair Crane says:

      It was Bartok that said that. But probably only because he lost to Wilhelm Backhaus.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      I believe it was Bartók.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Bartok probably said that after coming as number 2 after Wilhelm Backhaus in an important competition in the early 1900’s.

      • Raniero Tazzi says:

        It was Bartok, but he was not bothered by the second prize after Backhaus on the piano competition. In a letter he wrote to his mother, he was bothered that he was second to Attilio Brugnoli in the Composition Competition.

  • Hilary says:

    Many good points here though I’d dispute the ” one or two wonderful recordings ”
    More than that to my mind: Scarlatti, Haydn,Ravel, Prokofiev. (3 recordings)

    Another factor here is over reliance on a mentor. In this case, his wife. When she passed away, the wild eccentricities took grip.

  • Chris says:

    Tomorrow: How will life in the U.S. be with new president Reagan?

    • Peter Donohoe says:


      • Lloyd Arriola says:

        Perhaps “Chris” is suggesting we are too focused on the past. Yet that is the point here–to remember what happens to a big talent when pushed out too soon and avoid an ugly aftermath. Peter Donohoe’s essay is meant to be a cautionary tale.

    • Hilary says:

      Touching review. In some ways the most perceptive of the lot. I would make a distinction with the Brahms which was less afflicted with these problems than the rest of the recital.

  • hyprocritesgalore says:

    The star syndrome has always existed. It is part of humanity which loves a star and the idea of star. It all dates back to the beginning of time. Lots of sour grapes here about the combination of what equals success and fame. It has less to do about great musicians who can exist outside of the concert hall. The concert hall itself is for the bullfighter not for a person who knows how to properly kill a bull.

  • David says:

    Though this article makes several good points, it seems to be premised upon the idea that the mission of international competitions is to find out exceptional talent — an idea which in my opinion is far from being the case. Though there are undoubtedly many artists whose career was launched after winning a major competition, they are but a minority. Going through the rosters of any major competition should easily show how few winners — including first prize winners — were actually able to have a major career and are today still known from a large audience. Many competitions tend to eliminate precisely those whose style does not fit a certain mold and often tend to promote those whose playing, though at a high level, remains yet “uncontroversial” and thus without any significant personality. “Eccentricity” is not necessarily a bad thing, and an artist should be true to himself or herself, no matter what a jury member — most of which, it must be said, have their own axes to grind and come to the jury with much personal baggage — might think of it. Who cares what people think — including jury members and critics? I’m personally not interested in the least in hearing a cookie-cutter performance of a piece that has already been played a gazzilion times before; I’m more interested in what an artist has to say about it, and hope s/he can bring something new to it that reveals it under an angle I had not considered before. There’s always going to be someone out there able to trash any artist, for any reason, as music is a highly subjective business, and the judgment of musicians, especially when given by musicians, is often driven by factors which have absolutely nothing to do with a quality of a given musical performance. If we were to take seriously what people think, we probably would have been deprived of many great performers as well as many masterworks in the history of western music — such as, for instance, The Rite of Spring. I remember reading in a music history book written quite a while ago that Mahler was the most vulgar of composers, whereas Reger represented the absolute consummation of German music. How times change… Not that I don’t enjoy Reger, as I actually sometimes do — but I think this speaks for itself.

    • David says:

      I also meant to add, to the author’s point that is quite well taken, that the flipside of the coin is also true: we are indeed in an era when classical music has become the theater of much hype and superficiality, and having a career today depends largely upon factors which have nothing to do with music and everything to do with appearance and glamour. Not that many of those performers aren’t talented — they undoubtedly are, but are perhaps not the most talented nor the most unique. It’s quite clear that, in today’s world driven by image, hype, and internet gossip spreading worldwide at the speed of light, it will be very challenging for anyone who is not young, attractive, thin, and glamorous, and who does not understand how to play and navigate the media game, to have a career. Not impossible — but truly an uphill battle. This, though, does not necessarily mean that IP’s reputation is due to such factors. His Chopin Scherzi and Scarlatti sonatas seem to suggest otherwise.

      • Peter Donohoe says:

        David thank you. Agreed on almost everything. But when you say that […… it seems to be premised upon the idea that the mission of international competitions is to find out exceptional talent….] yes it is, because that certainly should be the mission of international competitions; it can go wrong, certainly, but, as stated many times before on this site, the reason that happens is not because of some deliberate act on anyone’s part to produce a bad, stupid or even corrupt result. It happens because it is extremely difficult for a democratic jury to get it right, however hard the members try. A perfect system is impossible, and many attempts to make it work better have been made, and are still being made. The fact remains that it is subject to all manner of pit falls on everyone’s part, but that there is no alternative. All we can do as jury members is our best to be fair and honest, conscientiously listen properly, and really care about the younger generation of musicians and the future of music.

        However, I must say that the validity of competitions – specifically the Chopin Competition of 1980 – was less the point of my original piece than the way the music world responded to one extraordinarily talented artist – then and now.

  • El Grillo says:

    It’s been this way for quite awhile.

    Even in the years past when everyone was raving about Artur Rubinstein or Horowitz, you had two pianists of another caliber Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipatti, that still and forever will remain beyond the loud adrenaline inducing hype.

    I have to say I was around when Pogorelich made his big scene in the classical world. I think I heard his first recital in the city I was in, just when he had been thrown into the circuit by Argerich. It’s a pity that his idiosynchronicities and eccentricities weren’t liberated into him finding an individuality that could speak on its own rather than the result we have now. But I can’t say that I disagree with what Argerich did. When he first started playing, beyond all of the refreshingly irreverent behavior, one got the impression of an adolescent in love, with his teacher and the piano. Ivo is clearly struggling now, I read that after his wife (former teacher) died, he couldn’t bear to play piano because all the memories came rushing back.

    Beyond this supposedly wild behavior you have the even louder drone of the whole industrial strength piano teaching-discipline industry that would make a prison out of the notes themselves. And when a person has locked up their soul inside such “bars” they’re heralded as saviors of music.

  • Erwin Poelstra says:

    Not sure what the point of this article is. Pogorelich was always controversial and his playing became more and more bizarre after the death of his wife and teacher Aliza Kezeradze in 1996; the bad reviews are quite understandable. If you ask me, mr. Pogorelich has [redacted]. This is what he said about his wife in an interview that is still online:
    ” Even in death she was still the princess she was born as. She had cancer of the liver. When she died her liver exploded, and in her last kiss she showered me with black blood. I looked like the phantom of the opera. My hair was completely clotted. I didn’t want to wash it off. When they condoled us with champagne I was still covered in her blood. But everyone understood. It was like with Jackie Kennedy who didn’t want to change the dress that was spattered with her husband’s brain.”

  • milka says:

    It is nothing but the memoir of a “silver medalist ” whiner .Shoulda , coulda woulda .The tune would have been different had Mr. Donohoe won 1st. prize alas he didn’t .It is a neat hatchet job under guise of reflected thought on competitions and outcomes .

    • Philip Yale says:


      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make? I read this as a critique of the over-commercialisation of the music industry and the tendency of high-profile competitions to focus on the “marketability” of a contestant rather than their musicianship. Pogorelich was cited as a topical example, given his well-publicised “prima donna” reputation and recent Festival Hall reviews, and his controversial competition history was very relevant to the whole discussion. Quite why you think Peter Donohoe would have written anything differently had he himself won first place in the Tchaikovsky competition baffles me, because he has gone on to enjoy a highly successful career as a result of it (if memory serves, there was no gold medal in that competition that year, so arguably he won in any case …). He also came 6th in the Leeds piano festival, yet has done every bit as well (or better) as fellow contestants that year, depending on how you choose to measure “success”. I hear no whining.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      No it wouldn’t, and I cannot imagine what thought process makes you think it would.

  • Leonard Roy says:

    Excellent write-up. I agree with everything you said.
    I was too young to have heard Pogo in the early 80’s when he burst upon the scene, but I did see a video of his recital from back then, which was stunning.
    I attended his recital at the Met Museum several years ago. This was his first appearance in NYC in many, many years. This recital was a grotesque distortion of the music and one of the most truly awful performances I have had the misfortune of attending.
    I don’t know exactly where the tragedy lies. Perhaps he has severe psychological problems or depression. Perhaps the public is partly to blame for getting wrapped up in the sensationalism of the story of Marta Argerich storming off the jury at that Chopin Competition.
    It’s hard to blame promoters and managers, in my opinion. The old wisdom that they’re just trying to make a quick buck is faulty. There are many more quick bucks in even the most obscure rock stars than in an eccentric classical pianist. If the public demands something, or responds to something (by buying tickets and showing up in droves), managers are forced to cater to this. Simple truth.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      Thank you Mr. Roy. Agree that no one is specificaly to blame for any of this – if indeed it a regrettable situation at all – there are obviously many who do not feel so. I am not even sure that I have any solution to offer. It is something that I hope will not happen again. There but for the Grace of God, etc….

  • 110 says:

    I can understand how difficult is the task to judge an Ivo Pogorelich.
    What criteria should be applied when you face a unique fenomenal talent?
    In the largest majority we ,the public ,are deprived of the most interesting musicians because some obscure teacher or dusty ex… are eliminating left and right the most creative”gems” in competitions.
    It is humiliating to be “cut ” to fit the competition standards.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      A very complex subject, 110. That issue – in a wider context – is what I feel jury members and Competition organisers must face more than we have in the past. I have written a lot about it, to be posted on my own website soon. It is, after all, the biggest and most posed question of all regarding competitions – how can we avoid, in a democratic situation, producing a safe, middle of the road result? It has been done – without quoting specific examples, for sure the competition world has produced some fantastic results. But the other has also happened many times.

  • KeyboardCity says:

    One need only to watch the videos of IP’s playing at the 1980 Chopin Competition: The playing is arrogant, mannered, and distorted. IP’s playing on that occasion didn’t serve the master (Chopin): IP was just using Chopin’s music to draw attention to himself. The videos of IP’s playing at the 1980 Chopin Competition are a permanent record of the 3rd rate musicianship IP was demonstrating at that time, and yes – the jury did the responsible thing by eliminating him. And what a stroke of luck: certainly winning the prize couldn’t never have promoted IP’s career as well as the ensuing scandal did. I also attended his pathetic recital at the Metropolitan Museum some years back (a disastrous program that he played in many halls around the world) – and I only wish that Mme. Argerich had been forced to suffer through it with the rest of us. (Here is Anthony Tommasini’s review: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/28/arts/music/28pogo.html?_r=0) Argerich’s actions at the 1980 Chopin jury were impetuous and irresponsible, and one suspects that she has since reconsidered the matter. Yes, IP’s playing improved during the 80’s and early 90’s, but his steep pianistic decline after the death of his mentor/wife was such that he should have been yanked off of the concert stage years ago.

  • Branimir Pofuk says:

    “…geniuses screwed up by the commercial world and a lack of love for the real person… yet another phenomenal talent destroyed by the ‘industry’, with its instinct for honing in on the superficial, and disinterest in the long term”…

    Sorry if I misunderstood, but if the text quoted above should apply to Ivo Pogorelich, then it is soooooooo wrong!
    Yes, he recorded 14 albums for DG between 1981 and 1995. So, it was twenty (20!) years ago when Pogorelich set a foot or finger into a studio for the last time. Also, he never agreed to record and publish a live recording because, as he told me once, “every concert performance belongs to the audience, those people who bought the tickets and payed to listen”. Subsequently, studio recording is quite another thing, and those buying records and CDs deserve another kind of precision and perfection for their money.

    The box with 14 CDs containing complete Pogorelich’s recordings for DG, just recently being packed and offered to the public and the market, only proves that interest in Pogorelich’s unique art of music making at the piano never ceased.

    But, to put Pogorelich in the context of “geniuses screwed up by the commercial world” and “phenomenal talents destroyed by the ‘industry” I find totally wrong, and even illogical. “Genius” and “phenomenal talent” are the only words I find to be true about Pogorelich in that statement.

    For twenty years Ivo Pogorelich was refusing to dance on the discography market floor. For almost five decades he is already staying loyal in the first place to his own artistic visions and very individual and extremely deep musical explorations of every text he is playing. All these years, nobody is even trying to deny, he is working hard and developing his superb technique far beyond the frontier which the most of other pianists can not even imagine in their wildest dreams.
    He is not indulging media, his interviews are rare, and even when agrees to do it, oh, he knows, believe me, how to give a hard time to interviewers targeting especially every kind of superficial and trivial approach exercised globally today, even by some media that used to set the standard of seriousness.

    And, after all, for doing so, working and living that way, Ivo Pogorelich has been slashed and slayed by one “big and important critic” after another. For years.

    So, my conclusion is quite opposite to that of Mr. Donohoe.
    In my opinion, Ivo Pogorelich is not a genius “screwed up by the commercial world” but the genius screwing up the commercial world, and not a “phenomenal talent destroyed by the ‘industry’”, but the phenomenal talent who is, if not destroying, at least disturbing the industry of conventional, imitative, quite often acrobatically superficial production of music without any real personal risk or artistic, musical, intellectual and human challenge.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      Dear Mr. Pofuk, Thank you for your very interesting response, for which I have the greatest respect. Surely, however, the truth is that whether or not the statement of mine that you quote is valid enitrely depends upon whether one believes in the present day performances offered. You quite obviously find them visionary, and I deeply admire you for your sincerity.

      • Branimir Pofuk says:

        Dear Mr. Donohoe,

        And I admire and respect you being open for a dialogue. Thank you very much for starting this interestin discussion.
        Best regards!

  • milka says:

    That keyboard city did not care for the pathetic Met concert is well and good but in directing us to a reviewer of no consequence in hopes of bolstering up a premise shows lack of imagination . It is interesting to note that when a certain famous now dead Canadian pianist played a work to
    suit his take on it even if it went against the composer’s instructions the crowd applauded the transgression as artistic license. Depends whose ox is being gored .

    To presume that Ms.Argerich would since have changed her mind is arrogance,she in 1980 acted on what she heard at that time and it seemed to please her , whether it in retrospect pleases keyboard city or no is of no import .

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      You must be really nice to meet. Next time I am in NYC we must get together. Oh, and you would make a great jury member.

      • Milka says:

        Alas never to meet! I don’t do jury work -have too much respect for the art .

        But will leave you with these lines – Now let it work
        Mischief ,thou art afoot
        Take thou what course thou wilt .

        • Peter Donohoe says:


          Never to meet! What a surprise.

          But seriously, do you really think that people who serve on competition juries do not respect the art of music?

          And as for mischief, what are you talking about?

          If your response is another chippy childish snipe, it will not receive a reply.

    • KeyboardCity says:

      The “famous now dead Canadian pianist” was in fact IP’s role-model, as he often stated in his interviews. But, are you sure the audience applauded that Canadian pianist’s transgression as artistic license? Perhaps you should listen to that recording again: the “applause” is quite tepid, to say the least. Also, please note: Martha Argerich must be older & wiser now: She has remained totally silent on the subject of Pogorelich for many years. He is conspicuously absent from all of her festivals, and her silence on this subject speaks volumes. And by the way, Milka, Slippedisc readers observe your profound “humility” here on a daily basis…

  • Graham Clarke says:

    A few years ago I attended one of the most bizarre and disturbing recitals imaginable.
    A few minutes into playing, Pogorelich began chiding the audience – while continuing to play. He claimed he could hear people talking. This went went on and on – while he seemed to be intentionally playing in a fashion which could only be called – ugly; beating the keyboard relentlessly.
    As fate would have it – just then a cellular phone went off – you can imagine his response.
    The entire evening was a nightmare.

  • KeyboardCity says:

    “I am sure there were some very fine things about it” – Really, Mr. Donohoe??? You didn’t attend IP’s recent RFH recital, so how could you make such a statement? The internet is littered with IP’s scathing reviews over the past 12 years – so please do your homework. The music industry cannot to be blamed for IP’s pianistic decline: He’s attempting to bask in the shadow of his former glory; but, for reasons having to do with his health (of which I shall not specify), he can no longer deliver the goods, and he’s blissfully unaware of that reality. At one time, IP had the music world on a string, and he bounced it like his personal yo-yo for 16 years, but the Ivo Pogorelich that we used to know no longer exists.

    • Hilary says:

      I did attend the RFH recital and the statement that “I am sure there were some very fine things about it” is accurate. For what it’s worth (you place much importance on them) atleast three reviews reflected this: Sunday Times, Independant and classical source and even the most scathing reviews conceded that the Brahms was on a different level than the rest of the recital.

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      Yes, you are absolutely right. I was not at the RFH recital, and my phrase that I was sure that there were some fine things about it is an assumption [‘I am sure’ does rather indicate that, surely, rather than that it was a statement], was based largely upon information from people I respect who were there, and from previous experiences, including a recent You Tube video from the Netherlands.

  • Alan Fraser says:

    The recordings of IP’s Warsaw performances exist, I’ve heard them. He played very passionately and with a sound that was a little on the rough side… and it was not that eccentric. Just youthfully passionate, go-for-broke, thus a little dirty. There was certainly genius in those performances which I liked far better than most of what he did later.

  • David Boxwell says:

    How well I remember the very moment the Civilized World Went to Hell in Handbasket (early 80s): Pogo on the cover of Gramophone mag wearing (gasp!) trainers.

  • Peter Donohoe says:

    I wrote the original piece – not as a critique of Pogorelich, nor as a statement about competitions, or an attack on Argerich, or on those who disliked or otherwise the RFH recital – but as an expression of concern that someone with so much talent and so much success behind him could attract so much negative attention. Surely I made that plain from the outset.

    There is a lot more to written about this, and I have not the time to write it. But just a couple of things:

    1. Unless there is evidence, about which one is prepared to go public, of corruption, walking out of a democratic jury is not something I would support, despite having the completely separate issue of admiration beyond words for the talent of Martha Argerich.
    2. The obvious charisma and power of this artist – from his ability to divide opinion, if nothing else – is still arresting – even from the responses here. That still not one syllable has been written about Dang Thai Son – the actual winner of the 1980 Competition – in these comments, and that so many have taken this as either an attack or a defense of the playing and personality of IP is telling. It is neither – I am not in a position to do either publicly, and I refuse to. I will, however, say that the situation IP has found himself in now is a very sad one – both personally for obvious reasons, and professionally because of the glee with which some attack him.
    3. My own first recording of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 was released at the same time as Pogorelich’s, so I did at that time have reason to think of him as a rival – a rival against whom I stood no chance whatsoever because of the international superstardom that resulted from the combination of all the circumstances of his emergence – including, it should go without saying, his actual piano playing. Now that he seems to be under attack from so many, I feel very sorry. That such a thing could take place was the point.

    Thanks to everyone for your responses.

  • Peter Donohoe says:

    A very complex subject, 110. That issue – in a wider context – is what I feel jury members and Competition organisers must face more than we have in the past. I have written a lot about it, to be posted on my own website soon. It is, after all, the biggest and most posed question of all regarding competitions – how can we avoid, in a democratic situation, producing a safe, middle of the road result? It has been done – without quoting specific examples, for sure the competition world has produced some fantastic results. But the other has also happened many times.

    • Michael Moran says:

      Mr. Donohoe, I found your article one of the most thought provoking and passionate on the subject of competition behavior by both artists and jury members that I have read for a very long time. It is both timely and opens or continues a vital debate.

      I have lived in Warsaw for 10 years and have attended or watched all the stages of three of the International Fryderyk Chopin Competitions. This quite apart from other Chopin competitions and festivals in Poland (e.g.Duszniki Zdroj International Chopin Festival – the oldest piano festival in the world; the International Paderewski Competition in Bydgoszcz; the annual magnificent ‘Chopin and His Europe’ Festival in Warsaw). Can one hear too much Chopin I ask myself? No…

      The International Fryderyk Chopin Competition is unique and presents absolutely unique problems and controversies every time it is held. This is not the place to discuss details (an weighty even entertaining volume could be written covering the rarely reported dramas, political infighting and powerfully expressed differences of opinion). It is a curious thing but some fine winners do have relatively low and inexplicable public profiles outside of that of piano connoisseurs. Don Thai Son is the perfect example – a superb artist, divine Chopin interpreter as are past winners Rafael Blechacz (all five prizes in 2005 – ‘as if Chopin himself was playing’) or Yuliana Avdeeva (2010). The ructions that erupted in Poland in 2010 concerning that decision beggar belief but as many polemics were in Polish the rest of the musical world was rather insulated from that flaming crucible. The greatest winners to my mind have been Maurizio Pollini (1960) Krystian Zimerman (1975) and Martha Argerich herself (1965) who still returns to Poland regularly to play in the dazzling ‘Chopin and his Europe’ Festival.

      As for casualties, the most tragic was the brilliant Alexei Sultanov (‘Audience Favourite’) who refused to accept second prize (ex aequo with Philippe Giusiano – first prize was not awarded in 1995) and stormed out. Shortly after he suffered his first stroke which led to a long term illness and his early death at 35. Competition stress? No-one dares mention this inflammatory subject – all has been forgotten with the passing of time.

      Then there is the 2010 ‘eccentric’ case of the visionary young Bulgarian pianist Evgeny Bozhanov (4th prize in 2010) whose curious physical postures at the instrument divided opinion and clearly worked against him in the competition. See my Wikipedia quotes on him http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evgeni_Bozhanov. If people actually listened to this great artist he possessed as unique a piano sound and penetrating individual interpretation as Ignaz Friedman – and many who were familiar with this supreme Polish pianist felt this.

      The point I am attempting to make is that the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition is unlike any other in the world and produces politics and internal musical drama of a high order indeed. I feel for many reasons (not least of which it is devoted to a single composer) it cannot be compared under the broad umbrella of ‘piano competitions’ per se. The Pogorelich ‘scandal’ (a favourite Polish word I have noticed) is famous but emotions do run terribly high – I sat directly behind the jury in 2010 and watched them in action. Very interesting…

      I adore the DG recordings of what one might now be tempted to call ‘Early Pogorelich’ – the Scarlatti in particular (finer than Horowitz on CBS to my mind) and the Bach English Suites as well as the that superb DVD that DG issued. This wonderful visual record would overturn any foolish prejudice of eccentricity at the instrument – aristocratically poised is how I would describe his posture and appearance. And you have to play these recording on excellent equipment to fully realise thew refinement of color, tone and touch.

      I could go on (and on) about the dangers of agents and marketing in the ruination and maiming of outstanding young talent. I have seen it too often. Thank you Peter for opening up this vital Pandora’s Box and using your own distinguished reputation to further an argument that has become increasingly urgent, even grave. many of the points you raise must be seriously addressed if we are to be just towards the future education of young pianists who have spent years of total dedication, sacrifice and emotional commitment. Their ultimate destiny is no small thing.

      I did cover the 2010 International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in detail on my blog – you might like to browse through it as there is scarcely any properly detailed record kept of these competitions on the internet. For me this competition contains all the elements of passion, tragedy and dramaturgy of a play in ancient Athens by Aeschylus or Sophocles.

      Unlike these truly great young pianists who take part (merely managing to be chosen to enter the First Stage is a musical and pianistic triumph) I doubt I will have the stamina to do this again this year!


      • Peter Donohoe says:

        Dear Mr. Moran. Thank you very much for your response and your insight. I would like to reply on more detail, but at this moment I have not enough time to do it justice. I will absorb the material in your blog with great interest, and try to respond soonest.

  • Kuma says:

    And Bartok refused to sit on competition juries bacause he did not want the decision of his conscience.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    Applause indeed for taking the time and trouble to write as you have here. Whilst the subject is indeed controversial, that should be no excuse for anyone to misunderstand what you posted above, namely
    “I wrote the original piece – not as a critique of Pogorelich, nor as a statement about competitions, or an attack on Argerich, or on those who disliked or otherwise the RFH recital – but as an expression of concern that someone with so much talent and so much success behind him could attract so much negative attention. Surely I made that plain from the outset.”
    Yes, you did make it plain, but perhaps it’s not yet fully sunk in to some readers as well as it might.

    The sheer tensions that are inevitably by nature present in a developing artist are always going to subject that artist to vulnerabilities that need to be recognised and addressed; some will, of course, suffer as a result more than others and, whilst I do not know IP personally, it would seem that he has encountered at least as many problems as anyone (and arguably more than some) in dealing with some of the issues that can get in the way of artistic development and I suspect that the competition thing served only to exacerbate this for him.

    Whilst I recognise that your article is not centred on competition-related issues, I do believe that performer competition problems have gotten worse over the years, partly because of an increase in expectations of hyped superstardom and ubiquitous PR machinery and partly because so many people have allowed themselves to become competition mad; in UK alone, the sometimes hysterical responses to the likes of Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, Strictly Come Dancing and the rather more straight-laced but no less obsessively followed Great British Bake-off, Masterchef and (surely silliest of all) Great British Sewing Bee suggest that large swathes of the public are being coerced into believing that no one ever gets anywhere in their professional life without being in – and preferably winning – some competition or other.

    Whilst competitions for performers are not all bad, the extent to which they encourage people to assume that there is an essential competitive sport aspect to them can surely do them no favours? We know that Shostakovich was a great football fanatic but I don’t think that he ever perceived the competitive aspect of soccer playing as in any sense analogous to the conduct of a performer! It is a good thing, however, that some performers build successful careers without going anywhere near those ever decreasing circles that the competition circuit can sometimes be.

    I just cannot help wondering whether the negative aspects of competitions for performers might at times risk outweighing the positive ones. In the meantime, however, IP’s case is indeed, as you say, a complex one whose roots are clearly not confined to a single aspect of his career; I did not attend that recent London recital but know a few people who did; all were very negative about most of it but I heard not a syllable of backbiting as a consequence – on the contrary, the responses were ones of deep sadness and sympathy. It is, however, the responsibility of an artist – to him/herself as well to his/her audiences – to know when to appear and when not to; to make a misjudgement of this kind is one thing (as poor Michelangeli did in a London recital that I attended in 1990 – one that he really ought to have cancelled but didn’t), but to make a habit of it must surely be at best unwise.

    Once again, very many thanks for writing about this!

    • Peter Donohoe says:

      Dear Mr. Hinton,

      Many thanks for your response. Not enough time to reply just now, but will try to do so soon.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Its interesting to hear one pianist’s take on another.

    Pogo is a remakable pianist. I heard him in recital at the RFH about 20 years ago- playing Pictures at an Exhibition and Chopin Scherzi. It was one of the greatest piano recitals I’ve ever attended. The man is certainly a genius on the piano.

    He obviously attracts so much vitriol, including here, for his controversial interpretations and apparent off- stage ego. But I’d rather have his performances than the countless boring, safe, run-of-the mill ones your hear from so many soloists these days

    • Christian Kliber says:

      I absolutely agree with you. The typical piano competiton winner has developed a huge “professional inner safety net” which sometimes makes his or her performance sound a bit bloodless. Not the case with Ivo. He might simply be a bit outburned today, having given the world so much. His recordings for Deutsche Grammophon are simply legendary. Ivo Pogorelich has inspired me and many I know to love classical music. He was my personal catalyst! (Peter Donohoe is also a fine pianist, I know his name thanks to Facebook and Spotify, and I like his recordings very much. Hope to attend his concerts one day soon.)

  • Michael Moran says:

    P.S. If you have never heard this great artist mentioned by Peter Donohoe I would recommend two recordings by Dang Thai Son on an 1849 Erard and contemporary instruments issued in the remarkable series issued by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute. They give a wonderful idea of his glorious refinement.

    Chopin Nocturnes:

    http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/institute/publications/musics/id/1691 (Erard)

    http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/institute/publications/musics2/id/1724 (Steinway)

    Chopin Concertos with the Orchestra of the 18th century conducted by Frans Bruggen:

    http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/institute/publications/musics/id/352 (Erard only)

    Do browse their extraordinary collection of recordings if you love Chopin and are unfamiliar with many of the greatest yet largely ‘unheralded’ Chopin interpreters performing today.


  • Peter Donohoe says:

    Dear Mr. Hinton,

    Many thanks for your response. Not enough time to reply just now, but will try to do so soon.

  • Fuerich says:

    I don’t see a connection between the playing of Pogorelich during the latest stage of his career (since around 2005) and a competition which took place in 1980. From 1980, before the latest crisis set in, to 2005, he performed in concert and recorded for 25 years. I attended some of these concerts and until around 2005, they were the most moving, dramatic and passionate recitals I ever heard. He had a unique voice. He had something to say and all the tools to say it. I recall with fondness the building of tension and release, the confident and rich virtuosity, the physicality, the artistry, the dramatic unfolding of the music etc. No pianist I have heard since has matched him on these counts.
    Since 2005 he has been in a brutal crisis and the concerts I have heard have been appallingly bad indeed. In Rotterdam this year he was actually better than in recent years, hard as that may be to believe. Cognizant of this crisis, I don’t see a link to the competition in 1980. I just see an artist who is struggling.

  • Evan says:

    Hey look it’s Peter, back once again to defend the integrity of international piano competitions despite >75% of the profession well-aware of their completely anti-music purpose. Then we could talk about the phonies too… you know, those fools who’ve never actually opened a text on 18th century performance but like to pretend they have an opinion on Haydn (now we’re at >90% of the profession). And then there’s the corruption. What an industry. Nice try though, pretending you actually cared about this topic, when all you did was cloak your little pro-jury/competitions agenda in some pointless article about IP.

  • Peter Donohoe says:

    You can call me Peter when you drop your anonymity in order to vent your anger.

    When I replied to almost identical rant by you some months ago, you obviously failed to read it, so I am not going to type it again. I suggest that you read more than you write, instead of the reverse.

    I wish I could be as sure of my facts as you are of yours. Statistics too. 90% of the profession have never opened a text book on 18th Century performance?

    Whatever it was on your past that made you so bitter, do think a little before going on the anonymous attack.

  • Milka says:

    Evan is being too harsh in the judgement of a limited talent.You do what puts
    food on the table and if one has to do international competitions for the benefits that
    accrue from the judging then that is what is done . Evan should realize that piano competitions have nothing to do with music as an art form however one dresses up the event .

  • Milka says:

    It seems a nerve has been touched …………….

  • Steve Su says:

    But if IP didn’t receive any attention at all at the 1980 piano competition, could he actually felt so discouraged he just give up music altogether?

    I have not listened to Pogorelich live, so I cannot really comment on his live performances, but of the DG CDs I have of him (Liszt, Scriabin + Beethoven, Schumann + Scarlatti) I do have a lot of respect for the artist. To me, at the end of the day, what really matters to me is whether the music is convincing, and Pogorelich did perform very well in these recordings.

    Another name that comes to my mind is Glenn Gould, whose playing of Mozart was rather strange and I don’t always agree with his Beethoven performances. His tempo can also be very very slow, or incredibly fast for a slow piece. But his Bach was always convincing, and in his Goldberg variations, he thought very carefully about each note through out the piece. I felt the same when I listened to many of Pogorelich’s DG recordings.

    To me the eccentricities are part of their playing style, and like it or not, it makes our classical scenes interesting. I think their worlds are so far removed from most of us, we may never truly understand what they were trying to do. I don’t really understand someone with IP’s status, does he really need to perform again? If I were him, I will just just make enough money at the height of my career, retire and just play for myself.

    Also, to me the competitions are not really that useful, if Horowtiz, Richter, Giels, Ogdon, Pletnev, Haskil, Lipatti all entered an international piano competition, who would win? Or if Liszt and Chopin both entered Chopin International Competition, who should be the winner? If technical accuracy is the only criteria, sure we may be able to distinguish a winner, but difficulties still arise when two pianists are equally accurate and that is not the only thing that is important in a piano competition.

    Beside the names mentioned in some of the earlier posts about competition winners, Stanislav Bunin is also another pianist which I have been immensely impressed by his performance at the Chopin International Competition, but he is almost unknown by many people these days. And I don’t actually know how he play these days. I don’t think it follows that a more orthodox approach necessarily lead to a very successful or more successful career, there are many factors around a pianist’s environment that could make or break their developments as a major artist, and whether their reputation will remain intact over the years.

  • Gary Lloyd says:

    Mr. Donohoe,

    I’m late to the discussion, so most likely whatever I write here will not be read, but I’d like to take a different tack.

    I have the recording of IP, live, in the Warsaw Competition. It remains fascinating to me to this very moment. Even then there were things I totally disagree/disagreed with. An example would be his Chopin F Major Ballade, where all slow sections were played so slowly that any idea of a phrase was absent. But someone else may see it differently. Still, there was a lot to like, and the individuality was striking.

    Remember also that the difference between “mannered”, “distorted” and “willful” vs. “original”, “inspired” and “genius” is which side you stand regarding a particular player’s way of playing.

    Think only of Horowitz. I had friends who hated everything he played. Just HATED his sound, his intepretations, and so on. Others worshipped him as a pianist. (I’m somewhere in the middle, but with a huge amount of respect, and absolutely no hate or contempt.)

    IP seems to have attracted similar strong feelings, on both sides. The difference in the end will probably be that there will be no second chapter for Ivo.

    I would argue that his best recordings are far greater in number than just a few.

    Now, for an example of how strange fate is, and how silly it may be for any of us to second-guess the past.

    At the time that Zimerman’s Chopin Concertos recordings appeared, I didn’t like his interpretations. I realized he was a wonderful young pianist, but everything felt too safe, and I told that to my students. I suggested other recordings, other readings. Many years later Zimerman released another recording, this time conducting himself, and I find those interpretations utterly fascinating. I love the personal vision, not only in the playing but in the conducting.

    Recently I alternated between the old Pogorelich recording – which I very much like – and the more recent Zimerman recording of the Chopin F Minor Concerto. Suddenly I was shocked to here Zimerman phrasing in some places very close to what Pogorelich did. Imitation? First of all, if so probably it was subconscious. And Zimerman has plenty to say that is new. But it reminded that all musicians absorb new ideas through listening to other musicians.

    So let’s indulge in a bit of fantasy here. Had Pogorelich never become so famous, perhaps Zimerman may not have heard him and he may not have tweaked or amended his own vision. It’s not just about one player, because all great players absorb ideas from other great players. It is simply part of how the whole musical process works.

    And had Argerich not walked out, who is to say that those of us who loved the early IP recordings may never have gotten to hear them, because they may never have happened. Food for thought.

    Finally, when a great mind is nearly destroyed from severe mental problems, it is simply a tragedy. We never know if it is nature or nuture.

    What would have happened to Horowitz had he never withdrawn from the world for so many years (50s, early 60s). Would a healthier Horowitz have played better? Or was his pain part of the mix that caused his unique musical viewpoint? We could ask the same question about Gould.

    But let’s not stop there. Supposing the mental problems that eventually destroyed Schumann might have been controlled by controlled substances. What kind of music might he have written?

    I see competitions as a necessary evil. I don’t like them, and I seldom like the results. Music should never be about competing, in a perfect world. But we not live in a perfect world, so now and then magnificent pianists make it through this (to me) necessary hell and go on to do great things. That includes some of the greatest pianists of the past and will include some of the best of the future.

    However, I am quite glad that Argerich made a stand against what she saw as something very wrong, and I believe decades later that what she did was justified. Saying that IP might have become a more mature pianist and would have escaped his present demons by doing so I think is a “bridge too far”.

  • May says:

    What is the nature of IP’s mental probs? How can he play difficult technical passages on controlled substances?

  • Alex Keizeren says:

    I think IP is a great pianist, but would IP have won even if he has made to the third round though? As I recall, Dang was very good and completely swept the competition, scoring perfect in the 3rd round. Also winning all the possible awards available to him, best performances of Mazurka, Polonaise and Concerto (excluding Sonata since he didn’t perform any).

  • Dr C B Chinoy says:

    For folk like me who hold Mr Pogorelich in high regard and have not heard his recent Beethoven Sonatas (op. 54 and 90) recordings, most regrettably not available on CD, I’d suggest you waste no time and do so soon. His playing is absolutely excellent.

    I was there at his last RFH recital. Pin drop silence from the highly appreciative audience, just as it used to be for Richter. I have more respect for Argerich’s judgement in 1980 than for any of the vicious critics who reviewed that concert.

  • Ljubomir Nikolovski says:

    Do you really think that someone can last that long in the world of classical music if he is not a top performer? That the audience will appreciate him for so long only on the basis of an affair from 40 years ago? And can anyone dispute the assessment of such a greatness as Martha Argerich? After all, the author of this text, Mr. Peter Donohoe, says that he is a pianist himself. You know what? never heard of him!