Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall

Klavierstück VII; Klavierstück VIII
Kreisleriana, Op.16
Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 12 May, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Maurizio Pollini performed works by Stockhausen, Schumann and Beethoven in his second Carnegie Hall recital in just under two weeks. His April 29 programme had featured works by Chopin, Debussy and Boulez.

Pollini began with Klavierstücke VII and VIII by Karlheinz Stockhausen, part of a set of 21 studies. Only eleven had been composed when he abandoned the project. Each of the Klavierstücke is an independent work, but Stockhausen has encouraged the juxtaposition of numbers VII and VIII. These two pieces, composed in 1954-1955, are quite different from one another, the former quite slow and the latter rather fast and much shorter in duration.

There is a certain irony implicit in Stockhausen’s music. His concept of serialism seeks to impose a rigid organisational structure on such aspects of music as dynamics and duration – not merely on pitch (as in the twelve-note system of Schoenberg and other Second Viennese School composers). However interesting Stockhausen’s compositional rules might be, they are not apparent to the listener, who hears seemingly disorganised music that has no melody, rhythm or tempo, but is merely (as the composer put it in a 1992 lecture) “a series of pitches … with quite unpredictable durations and intervals of entry, each time with a different coloring.”

With no themes to develop or permute, no keys to provide tension or resolution, and no beat to maintain or vary, Pollini’s primary task was to bring out the score’s nuances of tonal colouration. Playing from the score, he navigated Stockhausen’s complex landscape of alternating attacks, decays and, particularly in Klavierstück VII, silences, sometimes assailing the keyboard with vigour, and at others caressing the keys gently. Particularly interesting were the use of the pedals and the silent depression of keys to allow sympathetic strings to vibrate and thereby vary timbres or extend a note’s duration. Although the attention of many in Carnegie Hall seemed to flag during the snail-paced number VII (as evidenced by an outburst of coughing), the more propulsive and contrapuntal number VIII kept the audience riveted.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana, a series of fantasies inspired by the exploits of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fictional Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler, is also very much a love letter to the composer’s future wife, Clara Wieck. The music alternates between rapid sections, perhaps representing the eccentric Kreisler, and slow ones, expressive of the composer’s feelings for his beloved Clara. It is interesting to note that the tempo markings for all but the first and last of the eight fantasies begin with “Sehr” (very).

Pollini’s performance was quite virtuosic right from the start, as he tore through the opening movement as well as the rapid passages that punctuate the lyrical second fantasy. Throughout the performance, his fast tempos tended to be very fast, as Schumann’s tempo markings specify, but this often seemed to be carried to excess. In the slower passages, including virtually all of the fourth and sixth fantasies, Pollini’s playing was dreamy, introspective, and sometimes even anguished, but did not exaggerate Schumann’s Sehr langsam (very slow) markings. In the seventh fantasy, Pollini played the introductory and central fugato sections forcefully, yet nimbly and at lightning speed, then suddenly slowed to give a gentle account of the closing section before plunging directly into the Schnell und spielend (fast and playful) finale which, after several forceful interludes, returned to its genial opening theme and ended abruptly on a quiet note.

Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata followed the interval. Composed in 1817-1818, this work ended Beethoven’s prolonged dry spell and was soon followed by some of his greatest works, including the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets.

From the opening fanfare, Pollini established the grand scale of the opening Allegro. He sustained the power and flow of the music as that opening motif recurred in varied forms throughout the movement not only to provide its unifying ‘glue’, but also as an independent theme in the fugato portion of its development section. Pollini handled the scherzo with delicacy, its bouncy theme, a distant relative of the work’s opening fanfare, was only briefly interrupted by a trio (legato octaves in the right hand and triplets in the left) and an even briefer Presto section, played staccato.

The lengthy Adagio sustenuto was played with profound introspective feeling. Pollini gave the extended principal theme a rather solemn exposition, and then sustained a steady staccato rhythm in the left-hand whilst varying the theme with right-hand trills and runs. As the movement progressed, harmonic textures grew denser and more complex, but later, in the recapitulation, both melody and harmony simplified and shone through clearly, leading to the quiet coda, with its tolling bass line.

The finale opened delicately, then sped up to hint at the pyrotechnics that were to come, finally breaking out into the full-scale fugal finale, replete with inversions, retrograde treatment of the theme, and dissonant augmentations. This was a monumental tour de force, played by Pollini at dazzling – perhaps too dazzling – speed, yet with all three voices kept clear and distinct. He succeeded in successively building, relieving and then rebuilding the inherent dramatic tension of the fugue and winding down to a near halt before finally launching the powerful coda that ended the sonata.

As encores, Pollini played two Bagatelles from Beethoven’s Opus 126 set.

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