Syncopation and idiosyncratic readings of the dense textures of mature-period Beethoven were the order of the evening as Belgrade-born pianist Ivo Pogorelich played in front of a packed, VIP-studded house in Tallinn's Estonia Concert Hall last night.
The four sonatas were performed in chronological order, with an earlier period work starting the concert. No sooner had the opening chord of the Pathétique Sonata started to decay than it was clear that this would be an unusual interpretation - almost Glenn Gould-unusual.
In comparison, almost any other artist's version of the opening part of the Pathétique, as unspeakably dramatic and full of rubato as it might be, will sound like it was played to a click track.
Before the familiar brisk main theme with the octave tremolos kicked in, Pogorelich took great liberty with the little cadences between the crashing chords. In a hallmark of the entire evening, he would often pause especially long before the first beat of a new measure - even in the middle of the familiar wistful melody of the second movement. It was a strange defiant act that seemed to stop time and let listeners absorb what they had heard before the resolution.
It was challenging listening, but never too maddening, especially as the evening advanced into Beethoven's Middle Crisis territory - Sonatas 22 and 23 - where relentless forward motion combined with distinct voicing. Never was there a feeling that Pogorelich wanted a given section to be over. His page-turner flipped pages this way and that as the pianist took lengthy repeats.
The Appassionata was fully recognizable as the Appassionata, a stormy slab of stadium rock arranged for piano, early 19th century style. But it was the last piece, the haunted and whimsical Sonata No. 24, that shone in an elegiac way and was perhaps best suited to Pogorelich's odd style.
Keyboard-side seats proved an especially good call as his hands were a joy to watch. He was at his best shaking notes out of his sleeves, or plunging proverbial daggers into keys in the middle of swirling ascending and descending figures.
Long scale-based runs were less impressive, lacking presence and clarity, here and there a blown note, but it might have been the instrument and the acoustics of the somewhat bare-looking stage and high-ceilinged hall in the Estonia.
Sphinx-like in demeanor as well, looking nothing like the 22-year-old with flowing locks who wowed Warsaw at the 1980 Chopin Competition, Pogorelich took many deep bows with a faint smile, returned once, then twice, holding sheet music. The people in the balcony and the First Couple below in the parterre led a standing ovation. But there were no encores.
CORRECTION: Besides the four sonatas, the first half of the program closed with a quite pulsating version of "Rage Over a Lost Penny," a Beethoven rondo and capriccio.