Schumann
Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 & Concert sans orchestre
Liszt
Nuages gris
La lugubre gondola
Sonata in B minor

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
The highpoints of this recital were Schumann’s Op.14, the curiously titled ’concerto without orchestra’ and the two Chopin encores. The ’league of David’ pieces, 18 varied numbers, dance in the broadest spectrum, inspired by looking to the new, the old shall not halt progress, David against the Philistines, and, in their high contrasts, a particularly vivid example of the familiar Florestan (outgoing) and Eusebius (reflective) sides of Schumann’s character. Pollini, like every other pianist in my experience, couldn’t persuade me that the impulsive movements lack profile and variety of rhythm; however, his subtle inflexions certainly suggested poetic thoughts and he found the ’Zart und singend’ of No.14 to perfection - so Chopinesque; the gentle blooming of the next section a testimony to Pollini’s sensitivity.
He was in magnificent form for the ’concerto’ (Third Sonata), given here in its original three-movement form. In this first version, Pollini thinks it one of Schumann’s finest pieces, playing it with total conviction and making the strongest possible case for it (a DG recording is on the way). In his harmonic freedom Schumann is crossing the threshold to Wagnerian chromaticism; in the emotional energy unleashed, Schumann’s unpredictability of phrase and compass-point is fascinating – he’s breaking free, soaring, yet the three movements have a concentration of form (Pollini took just twenty minutes in total) that establishes a remarkable tension between structure and unbridled communication. The quietly repeated note at the close of the variations (on a theme of Clara Wieck, Schumann’s wife) seemed like a continually-asked question; this and the violence of the ’mad’ trill that signals the work’s visceral coda remain vivid in the mind.
The Liszt selections proved a mixed success. The two late pieces are prophetic – a vision of atonality (certainly harmonic instability) and Impressionism. There’s no greater pianist alive (Brendel excepted) who appreciates the significance of Liszt’s austere final works – Pollini having championed Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, then Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen, as naturally as he has Beethoven and Chopin, understands, with twentieth-century hindsight, the vision of these enigmatic and very personal pieces.
His account of the sonata was disappointing. It’s not that he sounded hasty in taking just twenty-five minutes (thus shaving several minutes off the half-hour norm; some pianists have added a few minutes to that average) – he was though too fast in the more bravura passages – the problem was he didn’t present this great score (the sonata re-invented) with enough dimension: chaste rather than suggestive, literalness replacing fantasy, bombastic rather than incandescent. It’s a question of degree – Pollini didn’t go far enough. Yes, one could admire his technical skill and intellect, but his cerebral-dominant presentation was a one-sided view of a multi-layered masterpiece. Whether a four-part structure or six (as Brendel, a supreme exponent of the B minor sonata, has acutely analysed it), Pollini lacked an organic sweep, the return of the beginning at the end found me asking ’how did we get here (so quickly)?’ The answer I think is that Pollini glossed-over essential paragraphs and doesn’t have this music in his soul.
And to prove the point, he returned for a fabulous account of the last of Chopin’s Op.24 Preludes. It took me a number of bars to realise it was Chopin – SENSATION: POLLINI PLAYS RACHMANINOV I ran through my mind as a tabloid heading (Pollini doesn’t play any Rachmaninov as far I know). This Chopin had heart, sadly missing in the Liszt, as did the Op27/2 Nocturne with which Pollini eased his recital to an end. Two further points – the Schumann sonata was one of this year’s concert highlights; the second is I’d like to invite those members of the audience who were so quick to applaud after B minor Liszt, and those who clapped into the final note of the nocturne, to reflect that a musical note is the note itself, the decay of same and the silence afterwards. It’s called listening!

Maurizio Pollini is included in Philips’ Great Pianists of the Century series – 456 937-2 (2 CDs) includes Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata (No.1) and Liszt’s Sonata - plus Chopin, Debussy, Schubert, Stravinsky and Webern
The next recital in the Harrods International Piano Series is by Richard Goode on 14 December in the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.45 – Bach, Chopin and Beethoven. Box Office 020 7960 4242 www.sbc.org.uk

 

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