Maurizio Pollini in New York

Nocturnes, Op.55 – in F minor & in E flat
Ballade in G minor, Op.23
Nocturnes, Op.48 – in C minor & in F sharp minor
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44
Nuages gris
La Lugubre Gondola
Richard Wagner—Venezia
Sonata in B minor

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 7 May, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

Maurizio Pollini is among the most beloved of the instrumentalists who regularly visit Carnegie Hall. With his elegant bearing, brilliant technique and superb musicianship, he delighted a sold-out house with an afternoon programme of Chopin and Liszt.

The first half of Pollini’s recital, devoted to Chopin, featured two pairs of Nocturnes separated by the G minor Ballade, and followed by the F sharp minor Polonaise. In the F minor Nocturne, Pollini brought out the inner drama that lies between the serene passages with which the work begins and ends. Then, in its contrapuntal E flat companion piece, he traced a gradual progression from dramatic opening to calm conclusion, keeping the lyrical line moving forward at a fairly brisk pace and without excessive rubato. Pollini’s playing of the G minor Ballade’s pyrotechnic passages sparkled, and he successfully sustained its overarching structure, carefully controlling dynamics and varying the colouring of the two recurring themes.

The dark mood and steady bass line of the opening passages of the C minor Nocturne gave way, midway through, to a stormy interlude of crashing octaves before settling back to an ending nearly as calm as its beginning. This serenity of mood continued with the sustained opening melody of the F sharp minor Nocturne and persisted through several modulations to the closing restatement of that lovely theme. Pollini’s playing of this pair, though more ‘of the night’ in mood than the Op.55 Nocturnes, did not generate nearly as much dramatic interest. The first half of the recital ended with a stirring performance of the F sharp minor Polonaise, Op.44.

The second half of Pollini’s programme began with four late works of Liszt, all written in a three-year period (1881-83) that spanned the composer’s seventieth birthday. These miniatures are generally ambiguous in tonality. In Nuages gris (Grey clouds), with its steady rhythm but unsteady tonality, and Unstern (Misfortune), in which complex, dissonant textures give way to a simple but equally uncertain harmonic conclusion, Pollini painted tonal pictures in a style that anticipated Debussy’s Impressionist piano works of a quarter-century later. The two remaining pieces were composed in Venice in response to the illness and subsequent death of Liszt’s friend, Richard Wagner. Pollini captured their dark and sombre moods, as repeating left-hand figures suggested the passage of funeral gondolas along the Grand Canal.

Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, presented the greatest challenge of the afternoon, which Pollini met in great style. This work has only a single movement, which is essentially in sonata form, but its component sections function effectively as if they were the separate movements of a more-typically-constructed sonata.

The sonata begins with a quiet and dark Lento assai in which the principal theme is introduced in rather disjointed form, but it soon explodes into a rapid-figured Allegro energico, carried off by Pollini with technical precision. The opening theme takes on a majestic tone and is developed further, first in an extended section marked Grandioso, and then in a lyrical Andante sostenuto. If the latter section were seen as the equivalent of a slow movement, then the ensuing Allegro energico would be the scherzo. Pollini’s powerful and spectacular playing of the fugal passages with which this section begins and ends was the highlight of his reading of the Sonata. He was masterful in separating and balancing the voices of the fugue.

The remainder of the work essentially reverses the tempos with which it opened. Pollini set a contemplative mood throughout these short sections, moving from a lyrical, ornamented Andante sostenuto to an Allegro moderato which contrasted a persistent bass figure with a detached rising progression, and finally to a very brief Lento assai, which mimicked the low, disjointed passage with which the sonata had begun. Sicut erat in principio…

Pollini played five encores, beginning with Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie, which reflects the influence of Chopin and Liszt on its composer. Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Etude (Op.10/12) and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No.10 were followed by Chopin’s D flat Nocturne (Op.27/2) and, finally, Chopin’s Prelude in D minor, Op.28/4.

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