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"Was Ivo Pogorelich really that bad during his Philadelphia Orchestra performance Wednesday in Suntory Hall? In a word, yes."

TOKYO - Was Ivo Pogorelich really that bad during his Philadelphia Orchestraperformance Wednesday in Suntory Hall? In a word, yes.

The 51-year-old Croatian pianist was once a fascinating personality, cutting a modern-day Byronic figure onstage, with wild hair and leatherlike pants - while playing some of the most daunting pieces in the concert piano repertoire with astonishingly demonic insight. His recordings from the 1980s are too extreme to be classics, but they hold up if you're in a mood to hear Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit bristle with extraordinarily menacing energy. Pogorelich delivered thrills that were both intellectual and pianistic: He showed you an alternative view of the music that was completely convincing in itself and wedded seamlessly to acts of technical daring.

A career can ride on that for a long time, even amid recent reports of him yelling at noisy audiences or getting so carried away with pre-concert rehearsing that the public started filing into the hall with him still at the piano in street clothes. Still, you can't help hoping that, having once been so original and insightful, he will be again - and you want to be there when it happens.

In anticipation of Wednesday's performance of Chopin'sPiano Concerto No. 2, in which Pogorelich filled in forMartha Argerich, I revisited his recording of the piece, made 25 years ago, and marveled at how he treated each phrase as a discrete expressive entity.

But as one blogger put it, you never know if Pogorelich is being a phoenix or playing a swan song. The problem with Wednesday's performance was that his viewpoint lacked the clarity to be either - and lacked beauty as well.

"Well, he wasn't as bad he was five or six years ago when I heard him play some Brahms," said one concertgoer, "and that was really slow."

"But this wasn't really Chopin," said another.

By that point, I had stopped bargaining with my own expectations in an effort to find genius in what I heard. Not sounding like Chopin was the least of Pogorelich's problems. Was it even music?

Given his tendency to cancel important engagements and give outlandish interviews to the press, there's a sense that his talent is like one of those esoteric isotopes that can exist only briefly before breaking down into something else. On Wednesday that "something else" lumbered onto the Suntory Hall stage having put on so much weight that he looked almost moonfaced, and carrying himself with an intense sense of gravity that made you suspicious. Can't he just tell us who he is through his fingers?

That sort of stage manner is a throwback to a century ago, when virtuosos such as Vladimir de Pachmann treated each concert as a salon, talking to the audience, wearing eccentric clothes, using the music at hand as clay that they would mold as they wished. The composer existed to serve the performer.

In fact, many of those performers were composers, and could create their own blueprints, tailored to their strengths. Perhaps one reason the Tokyo audience responded so enthusiastically Wednesday is this: Whether or not you like what Pogorelich does, you know you're witnessing something created on the spot, rather than remembered and executed.

Each new statement of Chopin's main melody was treated with an increasingly slow graveness, to the point at which Pogorelich was literally stopping the music. Here and there, he delivered some incredibly luminous pianissimos. But they weren't respite from the rhetorical fortissimos that happened far more often; instead they felt like a mocking tease, as if to say, "I really can play beautifully but I choose not to."

The best moments were those when his relentless keyboard-banging translated into a clear statement of deep existential anguish. I consoled myself with the idea that being Ivo Pogorelich is a lot more difficult than listening to him.

But the more he interrupted the music, the more radically he bent it to his will by making inner voices in the piano texture into outer voices, the more of an ordeal his performance became. He was fighting Chopin rather than playing it. And that gets exhausting, particularly during the lyrical, even flowering slow movement, which felt Kafkaesque in its extremity. Often, he seemed to play a phrase for the precise opposite of its conventional meaning, if only to show he could.

The breezy, melodic final movement felt dissected by his interpretive surgery - he seemed to leave the operating table without sewing the patient back up.

Was it music? I'd say it was the most complete expression of contempt I've ever heard. At least Pogorelich can still inspire superlatives.