Maurizio Pollini at Royal Festival Hall – Chopin & Liszt

Fantasy in F minor, Op.49
Two Nocturnes, Op.62
Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61
Scherzo in B minor, Op.20
Nuages gris
Unstern!, sinistre, disastro;
La lugubre gondola [first version]
R.W. – Venezia
Piano Sonata in B minor

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 March, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio PolliniYou could spend your life ruminating over what connects and separates Chopin and Liszt, how they complement each other and, like pushing two magnets together, repel each other. Maurizio Pollini understands this clash of psyches only too well – the expectations that Chopin raises are much more veiled and open-ended than is the more heart-on-sleeve romanticism of Liszt, even at his most equivocal.

So it was puzzling – especially for a Festival Hall-filling titan of the keyboard such as Pollini – that the Chopin part of his programme took a while to get into its stride. The ways in which Pollini’s reserve and poise feed the music and release its complexity of emotion were never in doubt, and his opening of the F minor Fantasy was chillingly impersonal, establishing an extraordinary absence of feeling. But the piece didn’t go on to veil itself in hard-won identity, and the incredible variety of the ensuing music remained episodic rather than connective. We had to wait for the Polonaise-Fantaisie to get a fuller measure of Pollini’s legendary range of colour, tone and density, with his seemingly inexhaustible types of touch, and to understand how his inimitably austere virtuosity shapes Chopin’s elusive, large-scale forms. Even here, though, the assertively played opening gesture and distinctive polonaise rhythm didn’t retreat into the separate, spectral presence that can make this amazingly multi-layered work so satisfying. Chopin’s deconstruction of a symbol of national identity is just the starting point, and the piece’s profound sense of exploration, where elements phase in and out to hint at fleeting new connections, felt surprisingly reined in.

If the recital so far had sounded slightly tentative and unfocussed, it gelled dramatically with a visceral performance of the B minor Scherzo, ironically the piece in this programme that got nearest to Liszt-style extroversion. Not only were the outer sections saturated in a ferocity that took no hostages, but Pollini’s stunningly controlled gradations of volume, weight and tone played merry hell with expectations of what the piece can achieve, to thrilling effect.

For most pianists – even those younger than 70 – Liszt’s B minor Sonata would have been enough for the second half of what turned out to be a very generous recital, but Pollini prefaced it with a sequence of four short, late Liszt works that take harmony and expression to a nihilistic, modern brink, two of them an unabashed and bewildered response to Wagner’s death. They formed a suite of empty darkness, with Pollini’s searching, appraising impartiality an uncompromising partner to the music’s bitter intensity.

The Sonata came almost as a relief. Pollini set some fast tempos, especially in the fugue, where the music’s unrelenting technical challenges resulted in some insecurity, but the grandeur and coherence of his vision and the lava-like flow of energy were truly heroic. We’ve all heard performances of this work that slump exhausted to a close; this one, with the music hovering on the edge of its vanishing point, was transcendent.Compared with his stage presence in his series of five recitals last year, Pollini was as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him, even more so in his three encores, played with the virtuosic ease of a pianist half his age – No.10 of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies and Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ Study and Berceuse.

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