12 Études, Op.10
12 Études, Op.25
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Recorded 5-7, 9, and 11-16 September 1960 in No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: February 2012
CD No: TESTAMENT SBT 1473
Duration: 60 minutes
Treasure-troves like this don’t come along every day. Maurizio Pollini’s Deutsche Grammophon recording from the 1970s has long been acknowledged as one of the finest versions of Chopin Etudes. Now we have this previously unissued HMV version from September 1960 (Pollini, born 1942, won the Chopin Competition in March of that year). The producer was Peter Andry, the engineer Neville Boyling. As one might expect, the sound is warmer than the subsequent DG, and in being so perhaps takes the spotlight off Pollini’s awe-inspiring technique at this time and onto his readings of the music itself.
We have had to wait over half-a-century for this recording to be issued. Why? Without giving a reason, after hearing the final edited version, Pollini withheld his permission for the recording to be released. Finally, here it is, true record-collector fodder – and much more.
Comparisons between HMV and DG are necessary; they are also fascinating. Certainly finger strength is present in the earlier C major from Opus 10, and marginally less hard-pressed than on DG; similarly there is a touch more delicacy in the ensuing A minor, and more give and take in the famous E major. The C sharp minor on DG is a relentless tour de force. The pianism in London is no less imposing; yet more human, although DG has it for sheer edge-of-seat virtuosity.
The London E flat minor (Opus 10/6) has more give than DG, a crystallised desolation emerges. Textures are unapologetically bare. The F major is effortlessly despatched. The aching lines of the F minor reveal Pollini projecting emotions we rarely hear from him these days, and this sense of nostalgia also informs the multitude of notes in the A flat (No.10). In this latter piece there are subtleties of phrasal shading that are entirely absent from the DG, while the subsequent E flat is liquid beauty in sound, which he directs unashamedly at the lyric heart of Chopin, and hits bulls-eye. Less relentless than DG but still true to its explosive nature, the ‘Revolutionary Study’ still stirs the heart. There is, admittedly, less left-hand bass definition in Abbey Road.
There may be differences between Pollini’s two versions but one thing remains constant – his amazing command. The earlier Opus 25 set is no less rich in nuance, and comparisons remain fruitful. The opening A flat melts into being. This is one of Pollini’s favourite encores – to hear him in his young days is miraculous indeed. There is a palpable sense of discovery here, just as there is in the delicacy of the F minor that follows. And is that something approaching playfulness and humour in the F major? If there is one thing this lion of the keyboard has been accused of, it is underplaying (or not playing at all) wit in music. Here it is though, and beautifully articulated. Only the A minor (No.4) seems to lack the immediacy of interpretative intent demonstrated so far. It represents a small dip before he gets back on-track with a charming (another word one does not associate with Pollini) E minor.
The G sharp minor (No. 6) is a Study that under Pollini’s fingers has surely dissuaded many against any thoughts of taking up the piano. London finds Pollini, if not affable, more immediately communicative before he moves into unforgettably interior mode for a remarkable C sharp minor, the opening unaccompanied line truly ruminative, the ensuing sparse counterpoint the epitome of longing. There is greater shape to the earlier D flat (even a sense of underlying swing). The G flat suffered a little in DG’s day-lit recording. No such danger in London, and there can be no wishing for more virtuosity in the octave Study, the B minor (No.10). Here Pollini takes risks that the later polished brilliance did not allow. There is even the sense of quasi-improvisation as the central section unfolds, and Pollini’s masterly pedalling perfectly injects mystery to the transition back to the double-octave dominated opening bars.
Anyone who saw Jorge Bolet live will know how effective he could make the A minor, No.11. Pollini, like Bolet, relishes the contrast between the opening quiet phrases and the ensuing detonation. Technically, Pollini’s two recorded versions are equivalent in mastery and, although different in execution, musically they scale the same height. Is there too much gap between the last two studies? Once the final Étude’s semiquavers are unleashed, though, one can marvel at Pollini’s harmonic awareness and the way he shapes the music. His fingers ensure remarkable delivery.
This is an essential release for anyone even remotely interested in great piano playing.