The Pollini Project – 2: Beethoven’s Last Three Piano Sonatas [Opuses 109-111]

Piano Sonata in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 15 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Half-a-century ago many a Chopin-lover was bowled-over by 18-year-old Maurizio Pollini’s London recording of the composer’s First Piano Concerto (made in 1960 shortly after he had won the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition held in that year), a reading, conducted by Paul Kletzki, that remains transcendently beautiful.

Maurizio PolliniFifty years on, and with his pianism peerless throughout, this second instalment in Southbank Centre’s five-recital “The Pollini Project” found the most-striking feature of Pollini’s approach to this late, great Beethoven triptych to be the way he never exaggerated individual elements at the expense of an overall vision. The sonatas were played without an interval, and the breaks between movements were brief. This was conducive not only to intense concentration, but also to an unusual degree of continuity. Pollini’s playing – often extremely meditative in tone – achieved an almost hypnotic effect.

The glorious opening of Opus 109 was delivered in a gentle song-like manner, the ensuing, tenebrous passages not in the least overstated, seeming merely like slight incursions upon a tranquil landscape. The rippling right-hand passage in the first Adagio section had a notably glistening quality, and after a suitably helter-skelter and truly vehement scherzo, the finale (marked Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung) had Pollini interpreting the latter instruction (perhaps best translated as ‘with the most-tender feeling’) as denoting stoic resignation rather than anything overtly romantic. At every turn one had a sense of emotions understood, but equally of emotions contained. Sometimes there was a notable reluctance to linger, but this was at-one with the pianist’s self-effacing approach, exemplified in the final moments, its beauty residing in the sheer simplicity of delivery.

While the first movement of Opus 110 was by turns animated and tender – histrionics totally absent – Pollini brought a quality of vivacious abandonment to the fast second movement. By contrast, he conveyed to the Adagio beginning of the third movement hitherto undisclosed reserves of beauty, sustained (replete with anticipation) right up to the caesura before the ‘Arioso dolente’. Here the pianist was probing deeply into the mystery of things rather than offering a clichéd notion of desolation. This was equally true in the dramatic sequence of rising chords that so often are mere gesture. The subsequent fugal passages were notable for astonishing clarity, strength and forward impulse, the liberating coda offering a perfect sense of blessed resolution.

In Opus 111, after appropriately peremptory initial chords, and after non-emphatic ruminative ‘asides’, the first movement progressed to outbursts of breathtakingly propulsive energy. This sense of the inexorable continued during the fugal aspects and it was only at the close that a degree of respite was obtained. Some might charge that the second-movement ‘Arietta’ was insufficiently searching, or that it perhaps lacked breadth, but what was so special about Pollini’s interpretation was the sense of unflinching endeavour that he produced. The variations were alternately fleet-footed, pellucid, magical and grand. Near the close, jewel-like droplets in the treble, set against the bass, were something to savour, these final moments bringing this sonata, and the whole sequence, to a supremely satisfying conclusion.

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