Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31/2 (The Tempest)
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor (Appassionata)
Fantasy in C, Op.17
Four Mazurkas, Op.33Scherzo in B minor, Op.20
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 26 October, 2008
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This recital marked the 40th-anniversary of Maurizio Pollini’s Carnegie Hall debut – a performance of Chopin’s Second Concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Sixten Ehrling on 1 November 1 1968. In the intervening four decades he has established himself as a much-admired and cherished artist, who was warmly greeted and copiously applauded by the capacity audience throughout the evening. At the age of 66 Pollini’s pianistic prowess remains undiminished, seemingly effortless virtuosity serving a probing musical intellect.
The all-Beethoven first half of the program provided ample opportunities to display his blazing technique, two sonatas titled to reflect their “Sturm und Drang” elements. Except for the dreamy arpeggios, Pollini stormed straight ahead in the first movement of‘The Tempest’. The ensuing Adagio provided welcome respite, beautifully sung, long lines sustained beyond what one believes possible on a piano, a high point of the evening. In the finale Pollini resumed his high-energy approach, at times turning the lilting Allegretto into a thunderous torrent.
This tendency to emphasize the forceful aspects of the music continued with the ‘Appassionata’, unfortunately at the expense of the equally dramatic underlying dark currents. There was no hushed tone, no mystery in the opening passage and its various re-appearances; thus lacking the full extent of expressive contrast, Beethoven’s subsequent violent outbursts were more effective than affective. The second movement is marked Andante con moto, although it is often taken at a very staid pace. Honoring Beethoven’s indication, Pollini opted for a rather flowing, restless tempo, and then moved the music along even more, gradually speeding up with every variation. Similarly in the Allegro ma non troppo finale he kept pushing forward, leaving little room for the final Presto to provide a culmination in speed and intensity. And like the first movement the finale was monochromatic, lacking very soft dynamics and shadings of color, at times over-pedalled, blurry and clangy in the loud passages.
In Schumann’s Fantasy an unusual tempo structure and over-emphasis on virtuosic elements persisted, and the sometimes-harsh sound was more Beethovenian than Schumannesque. Not until the Chopin set did Pollini shift gears to an extent, but not as fully as one would have hoped for. Both in the four Mazurkas and the Second Scherzo one wished for more beauty of sound; many of the opportunities for characterization and the slight nuances of tempo and expression that distinguish Chopin’s music were missed.
For the first of four Chopin encores the pianist tore into the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude (Opus 10/Number 12) in much the same virtuoso style. And then something extraordinary happened – the D flat Nocturne was exquisite. To paraphrase Mahler, “pianissimo at last” – there were colors, atmosphere, beautiful nuances and phrases, he made the piano sing. Clearly more relaxed now, Pollini then offered another Etude (Opus 10/Number 4), playing with a light, feathery touch. The crowning glory of the evening was a ravishing, poetic performance of the G minor Ballade, with long lines as well as dramatic flourish. Even in the loudest passages the piano never lost its beautiful, round sound, it never turned harsh; it was as if not only the pianist but also the instrument had undergone a transformation during the encores.