Ivo Pogorelich: I’m sorry, I can’t play Happy Birthday

Ivo Pogorelich: I’m sorry, I can’t play Happy Birthday


norman lebrecht

December 01, 2016

From an exclusive interview with Frances Wilson, who blogs as The Cross-Eyed Pianist:


What is your most memorable concert experience?

It actually took place after one of the very noisy successes. There was a reception and it turned out that the host, a very prominent and powerful person, had celebrated his birthday by participating in the organization of the event. The entire society of the city was in the concert hall and a good many very well known faces at the reception. There was also a piano in the room and all of a sudden someone pointed to the piano with an inviting gesture, where it became clear that I was expected to accompany the “Happy Birthday to you” tune. I was mortified as I realized that I had never played the tune. So I bravely stood up and said “I am sorry but I do not have this piece in my repertoire”. The host was elated as no one in the room could imagine that I actually did not know the music. Everyone thought that it was cute and witty and they all applauded again.


The full interview, which is published here today,  coincides with the exclusive release of Pogorelich’s recording of two Beethoven Piano Sonatas on the IDAGIO streaming platform.



  • Marg says:


  • MacroV says:

    I thought it was going to be a copyright issue.

  • Anon! A Moose! says:

    He could always learn the replacement song for Happy Birthday, “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary”:


  • englishman says:

    This strikes me as sort of pathetic. Does he mean he’s never played it, or that he’s never heard it? It’s well-known throughout the world.

    There was an interesting study of US music educators, to determine the musical competencies of those teaching our young. They discovered that a majority could not write out the melody of “happy birthday” accurately. All because it begins on 5? Those wide leaps? Whatever the reason, it’s frightening!

    • Bo says:

      I think he meant he hadn’t played it before and the he wasn’t comfortable improvising it on the spot

    • Max Grimm says:

      Does he mean he’s never played it, or that he’s never heard it?

      Why do you ask that question? He means exactly what he says….
      “I was mortified as I realized that I had never played the tune.”

      • John Borstlap says:

        According to my PA, who knows the niece of the PA of P’s former manager, the real reason was that P never had a happy birthday and could only experience the out-of-tune singing of his family as satire.

        So, a similar reason which inspired Stravinsky to present HIS version of the hymn:


    • Vesna says:

      Before you make a comment like this, you should find out first: Pogorelic has never lived in the US, neither was he educated there! What makes you think that he should have neccessarely been familiar with this Birthday song, when this song is not a common birthday song in every every European country?

  • Peter says:

    Maybe he is so fed up with it as many worldwide, who’s own culture hold many beautiful own birthday songs, but the prevalence of the American culture has “gleichgeschaltet” the world also in their birthday songs. So he just didn’t want to play the song by the cultural suppressors. Could forgive him for that. It’s not a particularly good or original song.

    • Mark Henriksen says:

      You know that he didn’t say anything that even hinted in that direction. However, we know now that Peter, if he does or could play an instrument would boycott American culture to champion his own…well, “isn’t that special” (google it, some American cultural).

      • Peter says:

        I don’t boycott anything except boycotters themselves and ignorants. That song just sucks. Can’t hear it anymore.

  • Phil D says:

    Maybe his Balkan heritage makes it difficult for him to play the rythms?

  • harold braun says:

    And if so,it would last 45 minutes…

  • Erwin says:

    They should have asked Katsaris instead:

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Well good for him, it’s an odious song. But I think you buried the lede, which is: “I have never heard them in concert but people of African origin have rhythmical pulse unique to them. Music sounds so spontaneous when they play.”