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Archive for October, 2015

Maurizio Pollini II

Maurizio Pollini

Maurizio Pollini

Following Pollini’s last recital in Chicago, I saw him in a French TV broadcast playing Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X. He played with extraordinary energy and concentration, matched thankfully by a virtuoso page turner, showing that even at 73, he remains commendably committed to contemporary music (well, it was written in my lifetime anyway). The Symphony Center management doesn’t seem to share that commitment, since they invited him back to play another recital of Schumann and Chopin, very similar to the one he gave last year. In fact, the concert was advertised as “Pollini Plays Chopin” so it appears they are even nervous of Schumann’s box-office appeal.

It seemed to work. The hall was much fuller than last year, with an enthusiastic crowd that was eager to pay homage to the master. I don’t know what they made of the first piece, Schumann’s Allegro in B minor, op. 8 although they applauded nonetheless. Before the performance, I was puzzled that I had never heard it before, but I soon realized why it is so seldom played. Remarkably for Schumann, it is almost devoid of any inspiration, a collection of romantic gestures with nothing to say. Fortunately, that cannot be said of his Fantasy in C, op. 17, arguably the finest piano music he wrote, a passionate love letter to Clara Wieck. Pollini made a famous recording of it in the seventies, whose qualities seemed to contradict his tendency to objectify music. My theory at the time was that the work was so emotional that it could withstand a relatively detached approach, but hearing it again recently, it really did seem to bring out a more personal response from him, particularly in the slow third movement, which he played with a movingly lucid poetry. He doesn’t have quite the poise or expressive clarity he had forty years ago, so the performance seemed less focused, often beautiful but without drawing me in to Schumann’s quiet rapture. I have to say that I was extremely nervous when we approached the end of the second movement, with its notorious contrary leaps in both hands, a passage that has upended many fine pianists. However, Pollini was wily enough to disguise any possible technical insecurity, one of the benefits of his long experience. He can still bring these pieces off, just not with the same magisterial authority or electric precision that he once had.

He can still dazzle with his technique though, particularly in the rapid finger work that Chopin often calls for. As in his last recital, the second half of fairly late Chopin was much more successful, starting off with the Barcarolle and finishing with the third Scherzo, sandwiching a couple of Nocturnes and the Polonaise Fantasie, which probably brought the best playing of the scheduled program. This music has been in his blood for well over fifty years, so there is a natural flow and expressiveness to his Chopin playing that only occasionally seems routine. The best performance of all, by far, was this third encore, Chopin’s first Ballade in G minor, which was beautifully judged throughout, with a gently questing introduction followed by mercurial outbursts and a lithe, thrilling climax. It’s difficult to think, given how long he has been playing at the highest level, that he had finally overcome any nerves, but he does seem to be less tentative and more relaxed when playing encores.

I hope that the Chicago management doesn’t ask for more Chopin next time. It seems to me that, to some extent, he is drawing on his reserves of experience to play, if not on auto-pilot, at least without the sense of wonder at engaging with such personal music. I think he is more naturally an intellectual player, so I would love to hear what the wisdom of his years brings to Beethoven, for example. To be fair, he was programmed to play the final three sonatas a few seasons ago, but cancelled at the last minute. Let’s see if “Pollini Plays Beethoven” can also draw in the crowds.

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