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Archive for October, 2014

Maurizio Pollini

Maurizio PolliniMaurizio Pollini had an almost legendary status as a pianist when I first started attending concerts in the 1970’s. Having won the Chopin competition in 1960, he famously withdrew from the concert hall for a number of years, but reemerged producing a series of recordings of music such as the Chopin Études, Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata, that combined a high seriousness with stunning technical control. His fellow Milanese, Claudio Abbado once said that, whereas he admired many other pianists, Pollini was the only one he loved. I always found that comment mystifying – of all Pollini’s many virtues as a pianist, I have never thought of him as lovable. I once attended an all-Mozart recital that Pollini gave in the Festival Hall, in which he transformed the sprightly D-major sonata into a portentous war horse. An up-and-coming Asian pianist I knew at the time (and probably shouldn’t name) vowed never to attend another Pollini recital. I wasn’t quite so outraged but I think it was probably 20 years or so before I heard him again live.

Pollini seems to have mellowed with age. Now an elder statesman of the concert hall, his playing has become warmer and much more supple than I remembered. I couldn’t even imagine him programming Chopin’s Berceuse before, let alone playing it with such genuine affection. He displayed the same tenderness at the start of his Chicago recital in Schumann’s lyrical Arabesque and in his first encore, Chopin’s D-flat major Nocturne. These were probably the highlights of an afternoon that was rather uneven because, if his playing seems less Olympian in spirit, it has also become a little less Olympian in virtuosity.

This was a real problem in Schumann’s Kreisleriana. It’s not that he couldn’t play the notes, but he seemed unable to control the pianistic textures. He has the occasional tendency to over-accentuate the left hand. The opening section starts with a torrent of notes in the right hand, which Pollini played very fast, but they could hardly be heard beneath the pounding octaves in the left hand. Since this tonal imbalance was combined with severe over-pedalling, Schumann’s complex, often contrapuntal, textures were frequently turned into impressionistic mush. The quieter music was more successful, although I don’t think that Pollini is comfortable with the degree of introspection that Schumann demands. He can play with a quiet dignity, but I don’t think he can convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind every note that Schumann wrote. And the final piece, which should be a spectral gallop, was devoid of any mystery. I think Kreisleriana is just too idiosyncratic for Pollini’s rather objective temperament.

On the other hand, Chopin is more overtly poetic, less inward, so it was no surprise that the second half was more successful. The centerpiece was his Sonata no. 2 in B-flat minor, with its famous funeral march. The first movement, which suffered just a little from left-hand-itis, was nevertheless delivered with an inexorable drive and sweep. After a scherzo that was daringly fast, if not quite effortless, the funeral march was initially withdrawn and surprisingly moving for a piece that can sound so hackneyed. The final movement is surely the most enigmatic music ever written in the nineteenth century, a swirl of notes with no discernible theme, key, or pulse, apparently formless but still somehow compelling, like one of Turner’s impressionistic watercolors. This was Pollini at his most technically impressive, giving the illusion of a seamless stream of sound not punctuated by notes. Some pianists play this with more dynamic contrast, as if constructing a narrative drama out of the music, but in some ways, Pollini’s more abstract approach made the music seem even bolder.

His official program ended with the famous A-flat Polonaise, perhaps the most famous genuine war-horse of the piano literature, and he gave two generous encores, finishing with Chopin’s third Scherzo – I’m not sure he would have been as anxious to please forty years ago. I shouldn’t give the impression that I hated his playing then – with the right music, his innate musicality, limpid tone, and effortless technique were a marvel. Two of my favorite memories from that period were when Pollini performed the two Brahms concertos with Abbado conducting the LSO, aristocratic playing of great beauty and visceral excitement. Human nature is fickle and I can’t quite decide if I prefer the greater warmth of his playing now, with its signs of frailty, or wish he had miraculously stayed on Mount Olympus as a demi-god, where he was perhaps a little less lovable.

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