Chopin
Nocturnes – Op.32 (in B and A flat) & Op.55 (in F minor and E flat)
Ballade No.3 in A flat, Op.47
Barcarolle in F sharp, Op.60
Berceuse in D flat, Op.57
Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39
Debussy
Préludes – Book II

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Genius is often said to have an infinite capacity for taking pains. If so, Pollini’s recital at the Festival Hall was a great example. The programme itself was a masterpiece of thinking-through. Two contrasting pairs of Nocturnes either side of the A flat Ballade; the Barcarolle came before the Berceuse – in effect another Nocturne – with the Scherzo as an electrifying conclusion. This linked with Debussy who reverenced Chopin and edited his music. Pollini’s playing was as perfectly patrician and chiselled as we have come to expect – but with new warmth, from a man at ease with himself. This, quite simply, is as good as it gets.
Primed by an announcement requesting that coughing be kept to a minimum, the capacity audience was mercifully quiet.
Pollini dedicated his recital to the late Luciano Berio. In the two contrasting pairs of Nocturnes he played with extreme simplicity, for example in Op.32/1, yet unobtrusively made us aware of Chopin’s radical harmonies. How right to play Chopin’s Nocturnes as paired – they were written to make perfect contrasting sense. The most exquisite unbroken ’vocal’ line was held throughout all four, reminding of Chopin’s debt to Bellini.
In both the Ballade and Scherzo all rhetorical detritus was dispensed with: we were taken straight to the heart of the matter. This was quiet Chopin playing in the best sense of the word – real power sensed but held in reserve, the dynamic level restrained, enabling us to hear colouristic possibilities and left-hand harmonic detail seldom appreciated. The Scherzo’s glittering descending cascades were varied most subtly whilst harmonic underpinning emerged in perfect focus. Perhaps, in the Barcarolle, Pollini’s Gondolier was a little too keen to get to the other side. However, the gently rocking accompaniment was so precisely judged that I for one was convinced. The Berceuse was given a performance to die for. Indeed listening to a performance such as this, one reflected on choices of music with which to leave this world. Pollini playing the Berceuse would do nicely!
Question: In which set of piano pieces is both our National Anthem and ’La Marseillaise’ quoted?
Written over three staves, Debussy’s second book of preludes is piano writing of almost orchestral ambition, which extends (more than the first book) the vocabulary of the piano. From the extreme inwardness of the opening ’Brouillards’ and ’Feuilles mortes’ to the final glittering brilliance of ’Les tierces alternées’ and ’Feux d’artifice’ this is music which Pollini does not so much play as inhabits. In ’La puerto del vino’, marked “with brusque oppositions of extreme violence and passionate tenderness”, Pollini accommodated both ends of the spectrum completely. ’Hommage à Pickwick’ is Debussy’s tribute to Dickens. God Save the King! Throughout, Pollini’s textual fidelity to markings paid dividends. He got better and better – ’Feux d’artifice’ (Marseillaise!), its miraculous surprise ending – an aural sleight of hand like a bell softly tolling Midnight from behind a heavy curtain –, left us meditating on what a profoundly mysterious art great music and great music-making really is.
Forming a mini programme of their own were the generous encores. First a backward glance to Préludes Book I with ’La Cathédrale engloutie’ and ’Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest’. Then back to Chopin for the ’Revolutionary’ Etude (Op.10/12) and a hair-raising performance of the G minor Ballade, Op.23.

 

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