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 Schumanns 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, Schumanns unpredictability of phrase and compass-point is fascinating hes 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, Schumanns wife) seemed like a continually-asked question; this and the violence of the mad trill that signals the works 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. Theres no greater pianist alive (Brendel excepted) who appreciates the significance of Liszts 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. Its 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 didnt present this great score (the sonata re-invented) with enough dimension: chaste rather than suggestive, literalness replacing fantasy, bombastic rather than incandescent. Its a question of degree Pollini didnt 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 doesnt have this music in his soul.
And to prove the point, he returned for a fabulous account of the last of Chopins 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 doesnt 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 years concert highlights; the second is Id 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. Its called listening!
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