The Pollini Project – 3: Schubert’s Last Three Piano Sonatas D958-960

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 26 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio PolliniThis eponymous project reached halfway with a curiously variable display of Schubert whose final trio of piano sonatas contrast fascinatingly with those of Beethoven, which Maurizio Pollini had essayed in the previous instalment of this series, though it seemed at times that his sympathies lay with those aspects of Schubert that are most akin to Beethoven.

Each of these Schubert sonatas follows a four-movement template and ideas echo between them; unsurprising, perhaps, given that they were composed across one month in 1828. They also share a preoccupation with silence, usually interrupting ideas in mid-flow. This was a peculiarity of the music that Pollini largely underplayed. Some pianists cast these pauses as yawning holes in the musical fabric; not Pollini, who mostly eschewed these interruptions, treating them as minor details. This fitted with his no-nonsense approach. Little rubato was present in the opening of D958 and he barely lingered in the Adagio. At times he seemed disinterested: gone was the sudden humility of the soft staccato accompaniment to the reappearance of the slow movement’s main theme. Granted, Pollini’s mad-eyed mischievousness in the finale dispelled some if its inherent silliness, but his brisk pace was often coupled with muddy textures.

D959 was similar in conception. Again, Schubert’s pauses counted for little, nor did the first movement’s unusual modulations of key. There were effective moments: Pollini did create a subtle quickening of the tempo into the central section of the Andantino; and in the finale Pollini emphasised the points of connection to the first movement and found a delicacy in the coda that had otherwise eluded him, though some of the intervening episodes were bashed out with little feeling.

After the interval, Pollini seemed to be a different pianist intoning the chorale-like chords that open D960. Although still characteristically swift in tempo, the distracted air of the preceding sonatas was replaced by concentration and clarity. Pollini avoided the solemnity sometimes brought to the vast Molto moderato first movement, instead building the exposition (which Pollini repeated, as he did those in the earlier sonatas) into something rapturous and joyful. When it came to the development, the captivating modulation from B flat into C sharp minor was otherworldly in a manner untapped in the previous sonatas. The Andante sostenuto was precisely that: a series of remarkable sustained expansions and contractions, utterly gripping in their majesty. Contrasts, previously glossed over, became integral. The scherzo seemed the freest and most flowing of outpourings after the dark recesses of the second movement, even if it was a little heavy at times. Pollini moved straight into the finale, finding a similar sense of jaunty ferocity that he had in the last movement of D958. If Pollini had reached this order of playing in the concert’s first half as well, then recital would have been something truly remarkable.

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