The Pollini Project – 5: Chopin, Debussy, Boulez

Chopin
24 Preludes, Op.28
Debussy
Préludes – Book I [selection: Voiles; Le vent dans la plaine; Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir; Des pas sur la neige; Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest; La cathédrale engloutie]
Boulez
Piano Sonata No.2

Maurizio Pollini (piano)


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

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

Maurizio PolliniMaurizio Pollini here reached journey’s end in Southbank Centre’s five-recital Project in which he has played an odyssey of music as part of the International Piano Series. This concert was originally planned as fourth in the sequence but was postponed due to Pollini’s indisposition. In now coming last, even by default, it meant that Pollini had journeyed across centuries and alliteratively from Bach to Boulez.

Pollini has advanced Chopin’s 24 Preludes at least twice before in London in recent years. As then there was a seamless approach to the set, with here just the briefest of pauses at the numeric halfway point. The opening Prelude rippled expectantly, the clarity of the Fabbrini Steinway complementary to the pianist’s unadorned approach, an intellectual rigour that repaid Chopin’s debt to J. S. Bach. For all that each Prelude was perfectly in tune with itself, it was the architectural wholeness of the performance that was the most absorbing aspect, giving a sense of inevitability and suggesting that any one Prelude could not exist without the others. However dry this sounds, Pollini also played with much feeling, chiaroscuro, and dynamic variance. Emotionally, there was much sensitivity and involvement. Pollini may be discreet with rubato and resists prettifying the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude (No.7) into its Les Sylphides incarnation, but, as ever, he found the noble heart of the E major example (No.9) and peered deeply into others – and, if Pollini’s technique is maybe not as armour-plated as it once was, he swept through the ultimate Prelude with doom-laden tempestuousness to its final alarm-bells. After the interval, from Chopin Preludes to Debussy Préludes – in this French Connections recital – the latter also a staple of Pollini’s repertoire. As in Chopin, Pollini again excelled preceding outings with these evocative, delicate, crisply textured realisations of six illustrations from Debussy’s Book I, hypnotic accounts that culminated in a magnificent ‘The Engulfed Cathedral’, which majestically rose from deep in the water and returned there re-fashioned as being even more subterranean and hazy. (Shame on those in the audience unable to suppress their coughing.)

Pierre BoulezWhatever influence Debussy’s music (Jeux aside) might have had on the young Pierre Boulez – although one would lean more to Schoenberg and Webern in this respect – the youthful composer’s Second Piano Sonata (which appeared in 1948, Boulez was born in 1925) is a towering achievement. For all that Boulez might have desired a fresh musical start, aiming to fill-in the blank sheet of paper bequeathed by Anton Webern (who had died in 1945, shot by a GI when the composer broke a curfew to enjoy a cigar outside his home) with an entirely new musical language, this particular work, sixty years on, now seems no craggier than Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata as well as being remarkably fluid rather than didactic. Pollini has championed this formidable work for forty years or so (and has made a notable recording of it). He played it superbly in this London recital. Not unreasonably, given the sheer complexity of the music, Pollini required the score, but it was no more than an aide memoire for he plays Boulez’s four-movement Piano Sonata No.2 with the same conviction and insight that he brings to his other chosen composers. From the arresting gesture that opens the explosive first movement through to the work’s vaporous conclusion, Pollini was the total master of the Sonata’s many fluctuations of tempo and its volatile (violent) contrasts of mood. For thirty minutes Pollini’s unflinching persuasiveness left in no doubt that this is a great piece. (What would he make of Jean Barraqué’s Sonata, from 1952.) Pollini offered no encore, and none was needed. The standing ovation was entirely justified. However unplanned, this was the perfect way to end The Pollini Project and he was on his very finest form.



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