Maurizio Pollini

Three Nocturnes, Op.15
Ballade in A flat, Op.47
Two Nocturnes, Op.48
Scherzo in B minor, Op.20
Two Nocturnes, Op.55
Two Nocturnes, Op.62
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 24 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Chopin has long been one of my desert-island composers, but on the evidence of this recital, and three others I have attended featuring his music, I rather doubt that Maurizio Pollini would be one of my desert-island performers. Ever since his rise to fame in the early ‘sixties there have been those who have considered his style aristocratic and penetrating and those who consider it cold and autocratic. Certainly as with his one-time teacher, Michelangeli, Pollini’s technique is magnificent and his approach impartial, but as he has got older I have often felt that this objectivity has led to a very unemotional and detached approach to a wide range of music.

Pollini opened with the three Opus 15 Nocturnes and he looked and sounded ill-at-ease; his playing lacked flow, the dynamic range was limited and the phrasing was lumpy, even the famous second piece only sounded pretty and the central section was under-powered. The Third Ballade lacked tension, the climaxes were underwhelming and the coda had no sense of resolution, and Pollini eschewed virtually any use of the sustaining pedal. Perhaps he thought its use would muddy textures rather than create greater tonal variety, which great Chopin pianists such as Perahia, Pletnev and Zimerman bring to the music. Somewhat surprisingly, after the Ballade, an assistant arrived to move the piano back a few centimetres. This adjustment didn’t improve Pollini’s playing. In the Op.48 Nocturnes it became obvious that Pollini now sees Chopin in terms of short sentences and not paragraphs or chapters. The music is analysed, dissected and presented without a unifying thread; only in the arabesque and trills of the coda of the F sharp minor Nocturne did Pollini convey rapt peace and contemplation. In the B minor Scherzo the tempestuous opening lacked sweep and power; however the central slower section did have a sense of tranquillity and nobility and for the first time in the recital Pollini’s rubato sounded natural.

After the interval the two sets of Nocturnes did have more shading, tonal variety, rhythmic subtlety and line. In the Sonata Pollini’s tempo in the first subject was middle-of-the-road, but the right-hand rising scale passages were too smooth and subdued. Thankfully Pollini didn’t slow down too much for the second subject – no tempo change is marked in the score – and in observing the repeat he took the opportunity to vary phrasing and dynamics. The development was powerful and purposeful, but the coda lacked power and conviction. In the scherzo the tempo was unexceptional but there was no sense of fantasy and the phrasing of the trio was foursquare and totally devoid of emotion, which undermined the great funeral march. There was no sense of grief or despair in the f and ff outbursts and the central Largo was too fast and loud: Pollini saw this movement as an exercise in sonority and little else. Much the same could be said of the finale where the torrent of semiquavers was smoothed over and there no rhythmic inflection.

Pollini gave four encores, including three of the Opus 28 Preludes and, second-placed, the G minor Ballade. A 90 percent standing-ovation greeted all this. Clearly, as the years go by, the Pollini fan-club shows no sign of decreasing; also quite clearly, their idea of great Chopin playing is not mine.

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