The Pollini Project – 4: Stockhausen, Schumann, Chopin

Klavierstücke – VII & IX
Concert sans orchestre [first published version of Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.14]
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45; Barcarolle, Op.60; Berceuse, Op.57; Ballade in F minor, Op.52; Scherzo in B flat, Op.31

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 25 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio PolliniThe reviews on Classical Source for The Pollini Project have been mixed, to put it mildly – puzzled by his unyielding Bach (my own view); enraptured by the spirituality of his Beethoven; and eventually won over by his Schubert. You’d have thought that the legendary and uncompromising focus of one of the high-priests of pianism would have resulted in a more coherent appreciation of his style. The way he applies himself to composers – for me, and, I suspect, for many others, Chopin in particular – Is all-embracing in terms of structural approach, technique and beauty of sound; his intellectual and physical stamina, for a man approaching 70, is a force to be reckoned with; but too often, you may well look elsewhere for a more ingratiating way into Schubert or Schumann.

What would have been the final Project recital, the fifth, of Pollini’s survey of the music that has fed him over his 50-year career (the postponed fourth instalment is rescheduled for June 28) opened with two of Stockhausen’s Piano Pieces, both of them substantial works. No.7 is dominated by a sort of sonic fall-out from one particular repeated note, No.9 by long repetitions of a chord within which there is a barely perceptible motion-by-resonance. Both have a strong narrative drive and show Stockhausen’s superhuman ability to subvert the piano as the guardian of traditional Western harmony. In music more to do with piano management than technique, Pollini’s response to this suggestive world of overtones, notes soundlessly held down, extremes of crescendo and diminuendo, highly complex pedalling and a strong, distracted emotional pull was both focussed and eloquent. Visually, the way he engaged with extracting every last expressive detail from the music was akin to Alfred Brendel straining to shape the perfect phrase, and was driven by an infectious passion. In many ways these two pieces suited Pollini best.

Then doubts returned in a rather too even performance of Schumann’s Concert sans orchestre, the first (1836) published version of the Third Piano Sonata (as which, with significant changes, it was published in 1853), written just before the Fantaisie (Opus 17). Both works are Schumann at his most irrepressible, surging and romantic, not that that was uppermost in Pollini’s mind. You couldn’t fault the detail, but the contrasts that give the first movement its momentum were blurred, exacerbated with some surprisingly thick pedalling, and the rhapsody of the slow movement’s variations was decidedly low-key and didn’t make sense of the admittedly odd closing nine F minor chords. Pollini’s speeds seem to get faster with age, and he took the finale more at the Prestissimo possible marking of the later version rather than the composer’s slightly more relaxed Presto direction. It was impressive but relentless, and of a piece with Pollini’s generally light-fingered approach to a work that was in the end relieved of its heavyweight drama and sense of romantic yearning.

The group of five biggish Chopin pieces was a sort of return to home-base, both for Pollini and the audience, starting with a fluid, bar-line blurring performance of the C sharp minor Prelude that caught its haunting volatility. The Barcarolle was superb, the three gondolier love-songs finessed into shape with time-suspending concentration, and building to a positively Lisztian transformational grandeur, as though the romantic gondola had morphed into a mysterious ocean-going yacht. Pollini avoided some of the rhetorical possibilities that weave their way through the Fourth Ballade, but the economy and impassiveness of his technique were quite stupendous, as they were, to dizzying effect, in the cat’s-cradle of decoration in the Berceuse. We’ve all heard more demonstrative performances of the B flat Scherzo, but Pollini’s restraint yielded dividends in terms of textural clarity. Two encores, a Nocturne and the ‘Revolutionary’ Study (he gave the latter as an encore in his Chopin-birthday recital last year) and a warm rather than white-hot standing ovation, and there we were, with the Pollini enigma still unbroken.

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