Maurizio Pollini at Royal Festival Hall – Schumann & Chopin

Arabeske, Op.18
Kreisleriana, Op.16
24 Preludes, Op.28

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 March, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio PolliniPhotograph: Mathias Bothor / DG

Maurizio Pollini, celebrated for his intellectual rigour and unsentimental poetry, was back in London with a programme given over to music that shape-shifts its way through mood and fantasy. There was affection and something akin to rock-star adulation emanating from the capacity audience at the Royal Festival Hall. The grand seigneur of the piano is now 73, and in the past two or three years his approach to music-making has become almost confrontational – poker-faced Bach, fiercely obsessive Beethoven, cerebral Liszt, but with Schumann, in particular, I’d expected something warmer and more mellow.

Ironically, it was a performance by Pollini years ago of the Arabeske that first let me ‘get’ the piece, primarily in the artless way he showed how the two contrasting episodes profoundly disturb the equanimity of the flighty main material. Here, though, there was an odd disconnect, a striking of attitudes between the two, with the important link passage oddly prosaic rather than considering other possibilities. In Kreisleriana, Schumann’s epic of free-fall, subjective romance, Pollini played down the contrasts between the eight sections, the music’s secret places yielding to macho displays of confidence, which are vital to the integrity of the work. I’m afraid much of this was down to some slippery articulation and effortful corner-turning. Pollini is a master of concentration, with a technique of legendary and reliable economy, which here seemed his main concern, at the expense of impetuous emotion and attack. He and his lovely, inward-sounding Steinway-Fabbrini were at their most Schumannesque in the eighth piece, the strange bass syncopations parting company with poor Kreisler’s deceptive calm, yet in the fast music for the most part a feeling of caution got in the way of the music’s soul.

With Chopin’s 24 Preludes, we were back in the world of Pollini’s cool grace. The poetry of each short piece fired off all sorts of connections, his tense shoulders lowered to let the music flow, even his occasional humming sounded relaxed rather than nervous. It was a reading that suggested rather than stated the emotional trajectory of the set, with those islands of repose (Nos. 7, 9 and 20) giving a hint of logical sequence. In the faster Preludes, Pollini’s left-hand recalled its power and evenness, and, some muddy pedalling and moments of a surprisingly unyielding touch apart, he gave us an idea of his familiar grace and responsiveness. His three Chopin encores, the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, the Nocturne Opus 27/2 and the C sharp minor Scherzo, all beautifully played, asserted the stature of this master pianist. There was a standing ovation, but shafts of insight and reminders of old form really didn’t merit it.

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