Brahms
Phantasien, Op.116
Webern
Variations, Op.27
Stockhausen
Klavierstuck V
Klavierstuck IX
Beethoven
Sonata in F sharp, Op.78
Sonata in F minor, Op.57
(’Appassionata’)

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Maurizio Pollini is the world’s most celebrated pianist.Over a period of forty years, his performances, live and recorded, have been a miraculous and unique combination of technical perfection and deeply considered commitment. Of his playing, more than that of any other pianist, one feels that his is a pure rendition of the score; it’s as if the notes walked off the page and translated themselves into sound – as ideally imagined by the composer in his own head.
With Pollini we were used to hearing renditions that were flawless, effortless, a benchmark for the high technical standards of the modern age. He was the absolute point of technical reference harboured to a powerful intellectual conception and, if this were not enough, Pollini was a champion of new music.
All this was on show tonight. Aloof, aristocratic, the utter certainty and authority of structure, the uncompromising intellectuality. Indeed, my companion recalled a similar performance of the ’Appassionata’ from Pollini in this very hall around twelve years ago. To hear Pollini for the first time now would still be a marvel – the pellucid clarity of his vision, his sublime confidence, his leonine authority, his force of will cutting through any complexity of composition.
So here is the irony. It is the Pollini of the past that sheds the harshest light on the Pollini of today. He is now, both literally and metaphorically, the ’eminence grise’, not the young Turk who took the piano-world by storm in 1960. Where one would gasp at how the most difficult passages could emerge without any discernible effort, now one hears the wrong notes, the smudges, the right foot down on the pedal. The opening of the first and last of Brahms’s capriccios, the first set of consecutive chords in the ’Appassionata’, its first passage of rushing arpeggios – one feels momentary stabs of irritation that Pollini revealed himself as merely human. Pollini’s tone seems harsher too, at times worryingly clangourous and percussive.Moreover, his interpretations have always been unsentimental. He refuses self-indulgence, impressionism, rubato for rubato’s sake, which makes tiny flaws stand out.
For a few years it was as if such perfect playing had induced world-weariness – Pollini became interiorised to the point of emotional autism – one could leave his recitals utterly unmoved and then whisper criticisms. It’s good to find that Pollini has recovered his will to communicate; the live recordings on DG of the Brahms concertos with Abbado were evidence of a renewed will and drive. The trouble is that Pollini has had no real way of developing beyond what he was before. He could not be a technical wizard who then developed, with time and wisdom, a deepened understanding of his repertoire because his performances were gifted from the start. Nor, on the evidence of this recital, does Pollini have any inclination to take another route, that of meditation and resignation.
The absolute clarity of Pollini’s vision lends itself perfectly to modern music. Pollini’s strength of character is so compelling as to render Webern’s Variations positively transparent, just as Schoenberg’s Six Pieces (Op.19), played as his third encore, had a certainty and motion that belied their brevity. Whereas for Uchida, in her recent acclaimed recording, these pieces exemplify whimsicality, allusion, wit, the fortunate concatenation of shards of deconstructed sound, Pollini remains Platonic, not Aristotelian. Inexplicably, for music that is consciously rejecting the diatonic, Pollini managed to convey the unfolding of each piece as something inevitable.
So what is one to make of Pollini’s Stockhausen, since Stockhausen takes this process of deconstruction so much further? One could not look for a better guide to this extremely refractory music. The pin-sharp precision of Pollini’s thinking, his sense of structure and flow, and his technical command (though not even he dared play the music from memory!) gave both the dash and glitter of Klavierstuck V and the demonic repeated bells of IX, if not accessibility, certainly an unlikely sweetness.
Pollini’s Brahms was not a surprise after hearing the recent concerto recordings. A deep understanding of form and emotional movement, but an almost pathological unwillingness to linger on any detail, made some of the passagework dismissive, even perfunctory. There was a refusal to relax throughout, an insistence on showing us what part each phrase played in the overall argument. It was at times like a slide show where each one is changed a little too fast. Only in No.5 did Pollini allow himself the space to find the ’innigkeit’ that Brahms aims to create.
The Beethoven sonatas displayed both sides of the Pollini coin. Op.78, after a gloriously pitched introductory phrase, at once glacial and intense, was contemptuously dismissive of the music’s lighter, playful side. Pollini subordinated detail absolutely to the goal of moving the music on. In his hands the sonata emerged as granitic and unsmiling if more substantial than normal, a genuine precursor of Beethoven’s ’late’ period. One detail – the first movement has a textual crux, at bar 16, where Pollini played the D#/F# of the autograph and original edition, not the smoothing out of subsequent editors. This is very unusual – so much so that it took the exposition repeat for me to appreciate it was not just a lapse in concentration; it greatly reinforces the sonata’s intractability, even strangeness. For Pollini it is clearly not a bagatelle-like improvisation, a moment of relaxation in the cycle of sonatas, but a profoundly concentrated miniature. This was equally true of the two actual bagatelles, from the Op.126 set, played as encores, both of which emerged as works of seriousness and intent.
The ’Appassionata’ showed the old Pollini, the Pollini where everything feels and sounds so right for one not to question the interpretative approach. I have already referred to moments when his playing was fuzzy or laboured, but long passages, especially in the development, were simply beyond criticism – every note in place, every detail enacting its exact role in a perfectly executed whole. As anticipated, in the variation movement, Pollini’s severity caused a loss of some poetic feeling, notably in the coda, but the magical entry of the semiquaver variation, the moment when the movement intensifies emotionally, was extraordinary, at once poised and enchanted. Perpetual motion suits the discipline of Pollini’s playing, so the finale was a fitting conclusion, as fitting as the ovation the audience gave him.

  • The next Harrods recital is given by Arcadi Volodos on Thursday, 29 November, at 7.30 in the Royal Festival Hall – Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and transcriptions
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk

 

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