The Pollini Project – 1: Bach The Well-Tempered Clavier [Book I]

The Well-Tempered Clavier – Book I, BWV846-869

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 28 January, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio PolliniThere are four recitals still to come in the legendary pianist’s series – his overview of keyboard repertoire from Bach to Boulez, and I sincerely hope those concerts are not as unremittingly poker-faced as his First Book of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. In the past, I’ve admired rather than loved Pollini’s limpid detachment in Chopin, like a draft of cool water – although no-one can touch him in the Nocturnes. Nagging doubts, however, began to surface in the aristocratic aloofness of his approach to Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy – beautiful, controlled playing that missed the point by a mile. Then last year there was a very bleak Brahms First Piano Concerto and a Chopin-birthday recital that refused to warm up.

Back to Bach – we in the audience knew that we were in for a serious time when the lights dimmed to darkness for Pollini’s entrance and then nudged up marginally, but not enough to read by or, perish the thought, to check the time. Bach pianists – Tureck, Gould, Gulda, Hewitt – in general make us hear how the piano liberates music as consistently great as ‘The 48’ and reinvent it. Harpsichord performances are gripping, if only to hear how the player deals with legato and registration; clavichord renditions, if you can hear them, give you a rough idea of what it might have been like to play Bach on an instrument with very volatile tuning; organ accounts suit the north German baroque fantasy of some of the Preludes very well.

Pollini’s approach to the first 24 Preludes and Fugues fell uneasily between the romantic possibilities of the piano and his own take on Bach’s epic galaxies. If you respond to Hans von Bülow’s description of ‘The 48’ as the Old Testament of keyboard music, then Pollini was rather like Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments”, delivering these great utterances as though they were carved in stone. It was very odd, as though Pollini was agreeing – ’yes, the piano and my Olympian pianism are able to reveal an expressive range beyond Bach’s ken, but I choose to present this cornucopia of High Baroque pedagogy at its most austere’.

Most listeners, I think, know and relish the relative simplicity of the opening Prelude, a door that beckons you in to this extraordinary treasure-house; many of the audience would have had their own landmarks – the scope and size of the E flat pair, perhaps, and the delirious virtuosity of the G major; and the satisfying sense of completeness as the B minor Fugue comes to an end, with the other Preludes and Fugues delighting us through the surprise of contrast, style and mood.

But Pollini was memorably uncompromising. The Fugues, especially, suffered from some unyieldingly emphatic phrasing and a consistently strenuous forte. The four-note subject of the great five-voiced Fugue (No.4 in C sharp minor, which I’ve heard sung to great if odd effect), stalked grumpily through some surprisingly unclear counterpoint – this Fugue can sound both very ancient and very modern, and doesn’t depend for effect on a shattering climactic fortissimo. The G sharp minor Fugue responds to a number of approaches, but Pollini’s stern fierceness did it few favours; and the semiquaver threnody that winds through the extreme chromaticism of the B minor Fugue was hard and uningratiating.

In general, the Preludes fared better, a muddy C minor notwithstanding – the G major and B flat major went with a velocity and diamantine sparkle that would have given Glenn Gould a run for his money, and the lovely pastorale of the E major did admit some pleasurable warmth and a nod to the fact that nearly all Bach, except at his most contrapuntally abstract, is still close to the dance. You could feel a hint of the spirit of Chopin, a Bach obsessive, waiting expectantly in the wings.

I wonder if it is the same for anyone else in the audience who has had the odd fumble with ‘The 48’ – that this music gives so much back to the performer and even the most-modest pianist can get lost for hours in the immediacy of response between fingers and notes: the biggest disappointment was that Pollini simply did not communicate this.

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