Chopin has long-been a major preoccupation with Maurizio Pollini, and while he plays this repertoire with deep affection (occasionally singing along) his approach remains unromantic, evident in his understated delivery of the two Opus 62 Nocturnes, withdrawn and almost severe, yet impressing in the first for the clarity of trills and articulation of passagework, and sense of line in the second.
Not so in the Polonaise in which solid, beefy playing (on the Fabbrini Steinway) didn’t quite add up to titanic strength. While heft and a sense of urgency may have been in short supply, his opening flourish was unquestionably nimble and purposeful. A little more air between phrases would have refreshed the ear, especially where obsessive patterns began to sound charmless, yet Pollini breathed life into the central Tempo di Mazurka, simultaneously intimate and playful.
Chopin’s repeated-note patterns began to outstay their welcome in the C-minor Mazurka, rigidity of phrasing impeding wistfulness and organic flow. More compelling was the Berceuse, Mozartean grace to the fore, its variations unfolding with both warmth and sparkling decoration over an accommodating left-hand: nothing sleep-inducing here, more wide-eyed transparency with Pollini shaking hands with a much-loved friend. And on to a spellbinding account of the Scherzo, perhaps not Presto con fuoco but still convincing for the fistfuls of octaves dashed off and the striking integration of “cannon concealed amid blossoms” carried within Pollini’s assured narrative; excitement too in the closing bars.
Following the interval Debussy’s Préludes (1909-10) silenced the persistent coughers, Pollini traversing Book One with barely a pause and bringing vivid colouration to the changing scenery. The spirit of Ancient Greece was conjured in a statuesque ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ and the East in the exoticism of ‘Voiles’. A gentle breeze cleansed the air for ‘Le Vent dans la plaine’ and a heady sensuousness saturated ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir’ – Pollini utterly absorbed in its dreaming. Mediterranean light may not have flooded ‘Les collines d'Anacapri’, but every note of ‘Des pas sur la neige’ was as if carved out of ice. Elsewhere, winds threatened, caprice flickered in the Shakespearean ‘Puck’ and haunting reminiscences of ancient stones were evoked with marvellous solemnity in ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’. The Satie-esque humour of ‘Minstrels’ was caught to perfection.
Always generous with encores, Pollini returned to give a dazzling ‘Feux d’artifice’ (Préludes, Book Two) and an unsentimental rendition of Chopin’s G-minor Ballade.