Robert Schumann’s Arabeske made for a gently beguiling opening to Maurizio Pollini’s latest Royal Festival Hall recital, his Fabbrini Steinway very responsive to a range of touches to illuminate the music’s contemplation and depth of perspective, coming to rest with magical distance, and then contrasted with the B-minor Allegro’s drama, unrest and poetic distinctions – complex music given with clarity and involvement by Pollini. And complex is the word for Concert sans orchestre, both for its history and its expression, seemingly but not necessarily a publisher’s catchy title for the three printed movements with two Scherzos dropped, one of which was restored when Schumann revised the work as a Sonata. Pollini gave a revealing reading alive to the music’s quirkiness and volatility, heroic and turbulent from the beginning, the first movement a stream of consciousness reaching emotional zeniths, the second (variations on a theme by Clara Wieck, not yet Frau Schumann) opening simply and starkly (and later scarred by someone snoring followed by a mobile ringing), with the Finale tumultuous in its rapidity, Pollini marrying weight and dexterity, the music boiling up, and over, to a peak of passion.
The Chopin half opened with the Opus 55 Nocturnes – bewitching slow-burn blossoming in the F-minor and with spellbinding attention given to the more-ornamented E-flat. Then to the B-minor Sonata, its first movement easy to over-emphasise and hinder direction, pitfalls avoided by Pollini but maybe he was too severely classical, for although the exposition (repeated) dovetailed perfectly regarding its subjects, just a little more expanse and breathing space would have been welcome; and there was the occasional suspicion of waywardness in the recapitulation. If the Finale hit the spot with the Presto marking, a soupcon more of the non tanto would not have come amiss, for although there was never a suggestion that Pollini was seeking anything other than musical truth, there was also a feeling of relentlessness hovering. In between he had put his technique and musicianship to commanding effect in the mercurial Scherzo and lyrical Trio, and was ultra-sensitive with the slow movement, here barcarolle-like, its current flowing while being tenderly communicative.
As generous as ever with encores, Pollini gave three, none of them trifles, all Chopin, the Scherzo in C-sharp minor (Opus 39) garnering much attack as well as limpidity, fiery and noble, then the Berceuse (Opus 57) would have ended the evening in rapture had Pollini not dusted off the A-minor Study (Opus 25/11) which swirled with fervour and climbed to a dizzying high.