Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Maurizio Pollini - Chopin, 1 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23
Two Nocturnes, op.27
Etudes, op.25:
No. 1 in A-flat major
No.2 in F minor
No.3 in F major
No.4 in A minor
No.7 in C-sharp minor
No.10 in B minor
No.11 in A minor
No.12 in C minor

The greatest living Chopin pianist, indeed the greatest living pianist, for an all-Chopin recital on the composer’s (alleged) two-hundred birthday: how could it fail? Despite some reservations, or stronger, I heard from some of those attending, I had very few cavils with the performance, which on the whole I found stunning, especially during the second half. Yet this, sadly, was insofar as I was able to concentrate. On far too many occasions recently I have been driven to bemoan audience ‘interaction’. (How very New Labour!) To have Maurizio Pollini perform the complete Chopin Preludes with a background – or should that be foreground – of incessant coughing, shuffling, chattering, and even, God help us, walking around the hall, was a dispiriting experience. One woman in front of me was sipping from a plastic cup of wine! I comfort myself with the fact that I shall hear him perform the same work next month in Berlin, in a Chopin-Debussy-Boulez programme, when I hope to be able to reach a more considered view.

What I can say is that, a few, largely irrelevant technical blemishes aside, Pollini presented a dazzling prospectus of Chopin’s tonal journey. Each prelude was very much integrated into a greater whole: a homage to Bach, but equally a vivid demonstration of what piano and pianist can do. We heard not so much a set of character pieces but a more ‘objective’ – loaded word, I know – but a journey through the tonal and pianistic universe. This is not to say that none of the individual preludes possessed character. The A major and ‘Raindrop’ Preludes brought tears to my eyes in their noble, unassuming dignity, whilst the violence of the D minor Prelude looked forward to Pollini’s (almost equally?) beloved Schoenberg’s Op.11. Allegro appassionato indeed! Much of the audience, however, seemed merely to resent the lack of pauses in which to cough. I cannot imagine why, however, since those people carried on doing so anyway.

The proto-Schoenbergian – Brahmsian? – darkness of that final prelude was intensified in the G minor Ballade: a towering performance, more ‘Romantic’ or expressionist even, than much of the first half. The Devil-may-care attitude Pollini seemed to adopt was in many respects quite unlike that of his former crystalline self, perhaps more akin to the unpredictability of Daniel Barenboim. The two Op.27 Nocturnes, by contrast, were seductive in the extreme. Siren voices called and bewitched, yet they exuded authority by virtue of Pollini’s supreme formal command. I do not wish to exaggerate, but there was perhaps a slight lessening of bronchial pollution here; otherwise, I might have found myself with little to say at all. Normal service, however, was resumed for the selection from the Op.25 set of Etudes. Here, Pollini’s trademark éclat was once again on show, insofar as one could manage to concentrate. It was perhaps slightly odd to perform eight out of the twelve, but if selection there must be, it was done well here. The sense of Chopin marrying technical and musical innovation, till death them do part, was superbly captured, with prescient hints of Debussy’s late marriage of classicism and experimentalism. Again, there were a few – and I mean a few – instances of less than perfect execution, but only a Beckmesser would care. Typically generous with encores, Pollini expanded Chopin’s world with another study, a mazurka, and a scherzo. The Revolutionary Study should have brought the house down and did, though one can only assume that tuberculosis had already brought down many of those present.

What, then, is to be done about audiences, or rather about the selfish minority – at least, I hope that it is a minority – increasingly insistent upon ruining performances for the rest of us? Short of installing a Stasi-like system of surveillance and reporting, a tempting thought, it is very difficult to know. I was surprised to notice that the Royal Festival Hall had deleted the later part of Sir Ian McKellen’s pre-concert announcement; the audience was no longer requested even ‘to keep coughing to a minimum’. This may or may not have had any effect, but it seems odd. Allowing those who are ill, perhaps in practice just anyone, to return tickets on the day of the performance would surely be sensible. Perhaps we have to be more strenuous in our disapproval, mortally embarrassing though we English may find such direct action. At this rate, however, the full house achieved for Pollini will become a thing of the past, if those who care about the music begin to reject live performance in favour of the uninterrupted recorded version at home. A positive footnote, though: it was good to see Matthias Goerne in the stalls.


mostly opera... said...

Thanks for the report. Good to hear he still gives the Revolutionary study as encore. Didn´t realize they allowed people to bring drinks into the RFH now..

Gernot said...

Regarding coughing: The best solution I have experienced yet is practised (or at least was practised some years ago) by the Kölner Philharmonie - all over the building they distribute cough candies free of charge, wrapped in paper which does not crackle.

Wansu said...

I have recently found your blog and have enjoyed reading your reviews. I can probably explain some of the ridiculous noises during the first half of the concert. I obtained a "balcony standing ticket" in the very last minute. In the balcony standing area, there was an old gentleman who at first sat on the floor near the center but constantly made rustling noises since the concert began. When Pollini was playing the 2nd or 3rd prélude (I guess), he walked from the center to a left-rear corner of the balcony area and prepared his seat on the floor without paying any attention to the music at all. (I guess I can say this because the rustling noises he made were so loud.) Even after he was more or less settled, he occasionally made loud and inconsiderately unnecessary noises like scratching his bag or dragging his feet on the floor, etc.

At first I thought he was incapable of standing throughout the whole concert, but for the second half he stood for the entire concert and listened to the performance very attentively (if I'm not mixed up)...

I liked the standing ticket: though it was a bit tiring to stand for the whole concert, I could choose a spot with the best view with no obstruction. In the meantime, Pollini's performance was utterly incredible and made me forget all these craps.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Wansu. I can only admire you for being able to concentrate at all during the first half, given the trying situation you outline. I am grateful that I had bought my ticket more than a year earlier!

Part of the problem, I think, was the nature of this particular concert. A piano recital is essentially so intimate an experience, or should be, that the slightest distraction is magnified -and, in this case, many of the distractions were rather more than slight. Sadly, as a friend remarked to me, another issue was probably the music, not its quality, but whom it attracts; I cannot imagine that an all-Schoenberg recital would have garnered quite the same audience...

Whether the Royal Festival Hall is an appropriate venue for a piano recital is another question. It can work, I think, but one really does need a 'well-behaved' audience.

EC said...

I found this concert incredibly interesting. The first half I found 'good', but the second half I will never forget. Perhaps it took me a while to settle in to the music, but something was lacking for me in the preludes - especially with Pollini's right hand. There were times (I fear to say) I wondered how Zimerman would have played it. I longed for a bit more clarity.. I couldn't care less about the technical blemishes (if Barenboim is acceptable for 'hitting the right notes', Pollini is faultless) but I just felt that it hampered his interpretation of a few of the preludes. Then came the Ballade of the second half and somewhere in the middle of it, something switched (for Pollini or for me). The rest of the concert was unforgettable. I have never heard the nocturnes played like that live. And he played the etudes with such concentration. And for the encore, the third scherzo - one of my Chopin favourites - he played it with such style I was completely convinced (despite having Argerich's several recordings firmly in my head as 'definitive'). What a second half it was!

Now, what to do with the audience, indeed? After my first recital box experience (with Zimerman the preceding week) I was once again in the same seat for Pollini. This time, guy next to me decided it was a good idea to play along with his fingers on the ledge. First of all, how in the world can people think it is acceptable to make tapping noises during a concert? Secondly, he clearly didn't know the pieces as his tapping was all out of time! Anyway, a very long dark stare from me in the second prelude put a stop to this for the rest of the concert. Once again, the box was rather good - much less distraction I found, compared with the stalls. What gets me even more than people coughing throughout, is the fact that so many of the coughs are 'un-muffled'.. people just coughing out loud.. like they're in the middle of a marketplace.

EC said...

PS. Thought you might appreciate this quote from Pogorelich (rather hilarious!):

When asked "Do ringing telephones during concerts disrupt your concentration?"

He replied: "Ringing cell phones don't bother me. At a concert of mine in Rome a 94-year-old man died in the middle of my playing. I continued."

Mark Berry said...

Wonderful! And from Pogorelich, I can well believe it...

Tony said...

It seems dying is not an uncommon occurrence during recitals. Zimerman also mentioned it in a recent interview.

Anonymous said...

It's when the performer "dies" and he keeps playing anyway that bothers me...