Maurizio Pollini plays Beethoven at Carnegie Hall [Pathétique, Waldstein, Appassionata]

Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Piano Sonata No.22 in F, Op.54
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Luna Shyr

Reviewed: 5 May, 2013
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Maurizio Pollini. Photograph: Cosimo Filippini / DGOne of the pleasures of listening to a master performer is the sound of music that’s seasoned with experience. Often there’s the feeling that he or she is long-done working out the mechanics of a piece and is focusing exclusively on the music’s soul and totality. Four of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas came across this way from Maurizio Pollini. His playing has stirred criticism of being cool and austere, but that was difficult to hear in this Carnegie Hall appearance, an afternoon marked by great warmth, expressive swarms of notes and a steadiness that can be challenging to sustain in Beethoven.

Granted, the ‘Pathétique’ Sonata suffered from uneven tempo and some rather muddy passages in the right-hand. That worked itself out by the finale during which the pianist’s dexterity with running lines took hold and hardly wavered through the rest of the program. Pollini’s strength at the outset was his dynamic range – true to the name of his instrument, pianoforte – and his assured delivery of chords that set the ground for the work’s Grave opening. The sublime Adagio felt a bit fast, although the final rendition of the melody was eloquent and expressive.

Some of the most beautiful and transcendent moments came when Pollini reached silent bars or landed solid chords that would cause him to pop up off the stool. One breathed with him during the pauses, such as near the end of the first movement of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata (dedicated to one of the composer’s early patrons, Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein). Pollini’s right-hand was sure here, delivering energetic but unhurried passages. Pollini’s understated presence also gave room for the multitude of notes to breathe, and he kept a very even tempo while moving fluidly through the spectrum of dynamics.

That same steadiness held true in the two movements of the F major Piano Sonata, Opus 54 (replacing the advertised Opus 78), a light piece dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil Countess Therese Brunswick, and in his left-hand’s skillful drumming in the opening movement of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata. Here the combination of Pollini’s strengths made his playing almost harp-like, with fingers flowing rapidly over the piano’s keys but with clear articulation and eliciting rich musicality. His playing could hardly be called dispassionate. If anything, his reserve (which loosened in two encores, both Bagatelles) kept the focus on Beethoven’s music, its clean structures and rapturous melodies.

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