Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Pollini Project (2): Beethoven, 15 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

For the second of his five recitals, Maurizio Pollini followed up Book One of the piano’s Old Testament with the final three chapters of the New, though one might perhaps be better to leave Hans von Bülow on one side and speak of the holy ground of Mount Sinai. Without the slightest preciousness – indeed, I cannot think of a less precious pianist – Pollini left us in no doubt of the sheer greatness not only of the final three Beethoven sonatas but of his musicianship. This, quite simply, was musical performance of a kind one would be blessed to hear but once in one’s life – and there are still three recitals to come.

Wisely, Pollini elected to give the three sonatas without an interval, allowing one all the more clearly to make any connections one might wish. They were not elided into one super-sonata, but the kinship as we ascended Parnassus was undeniable. Opening with the E major sonata, op.109, we were immediately plunged into a world both rarely divine and utterly human. The complaints one occasionally still hears concerning alleged distance, coolness, whatever it might be, could not have been more soundly refuted. This was pianism of an intensity that both incorporated and surpassed what one might almost dare to call ‘mere’ Romanticism. The first movement’s tempo changes were as convincingly handled as I have heard, not merely in technical terms, but above all with respect to Beethoven’s meaning: we might not be able to convey that meaning in words, but that does not mean it is not there. The sheer beauty of the chordal passages was something to savour in itself, though never narcissistic. Now that Pollini is occasionally a little more fallible technically than once he was, one might argue that the sense of struggle is all the greater; such was certainly the case with the Prestissimo. Not that there is anything technically lacking, far from it, but the way a pianist approaches this music at different times in his life can – and certainly did – emphasise certain aspects more or less. I should never want to be without earlier recordings, but, had I to choose, the philosophical humanism of this account would win out. The closing theme and variations were a case in point: Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung, Beethoven writes for the theme, adding the vocal mezza voce, and this was precisely what we heard – and what we heard extended, transformed, throughout the movement’s progress, the trills as melodic, as non-ornamental, as anyone could ever have heard. For once, I shall leave the matter of coughing aside, irritating though it was; however, I am sad to report that it became increasingly difficult to listen, try as one might, owing to what sounded like a malfunctioning hearing aid. Doubtless it was an accident, but might I make a plea to those sporting such devices to take care as paranoid as mine when it comes to my telephone? It was a great sadness indeed to have such a performance severely compromised.

Songfulness was equally the hallmark of the first movement of op.110, its trills again being a case in point. The Allegro molto was urgent, vital in every sense of the word, but never brash. Pollini seems to have developed a mellower touch – and I suspect that he was assisted by an excellent instrument in this case. Rarely if ever can the una corda passage have sounded so magical; whatever the ideologues might tell you, there is absolutely no need for a period instrument here. The handling of the ensuing recitative was equally fine, capturing in perfect balance – or dialectic – the demands of the apparently improvisatory and dramatic necessity, before arioso painful and yet consoling beyond words was heard. Fugal lessons learned from Bach – both by Beethoven and Pollini – were very much to be heard thereafter, its inversion in both composition and performance as much a masterstroke, or so it seemed, as the Art of Fugue itself. Now could Pollini be persuaded to perform that…?

Beethoven’s C minor daemon was not yet slain, of course, as op.111 showed beyond doubt. Yet Pollini captured to near perfection the tension between recollection, perhaps even intensification, of earlier struggles, and a new, ‘late’ voice. This should not sound like op.13, and did not, though the composer was recognisably the same; something more was at stake. Counterpoint and harmony sounded as two sides of the same late Classical coin, which is just as it should be – though far rarer in performance than one might suspect. The second movement captured equally well the balance and/or dialectic between sublime simplicity and necessary complexity. Pollini made no apologies for passages that lesser souls might consider harmonically ‘simple’; the placing of every note was truly made to tell. There are, or at least were, many great tunes still to be written in C major, with apologies to Schoenberg. Rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, was key throughout. I cannot recall a performance in which the astounding ‘boogie-woogie’ variation sounded so well-performed; it still astonished, of course, but it grew inexorably from what had gone before. Beethovenian variation is something very special indeed. So were these performances.

Later this month, we shall hear the final three Schubert sonatas...


Anonymous said...

Is that really what you thought? With the exception of Op.111, his playing seemed rushed to me and with far too much pedal. You could barely hear the connections between the variations in no. 30 3rd movement because of the pedal, and there was absolutely nothing 'expresivo' about it. Moments of glittering arpeggio work stuck out as the high point, but overall i didn't feel like we'd been taken on a journey so much as trotted through the pieces.

Most people's criticism of Pollini is that is perhaps too clinical, and i thought this was a case in point. He didn't savour the sweet opening of op. 109, or in fact any of the more 'melodic' bits. Beethoven isn't chopin, but when he writes a cantabile melody over many bars, he must be doing it for a reason, as his preference is generally for motivic melodies.

Could just be a question of taste, but the independent has given the evening only a two-star review. Anyway, instead of just disagreeing, i shall contribute! Don't know if you've heard it, but Andras Schiff's lecture series on the beethoven sonatas (available free from the Guardian website), where he plays and talks about the pieces, are an absolute joy.

I'm going to Schubert too, so i hope to proved wrong next time!

EC said...

I'm still in absolute awe from last night's performance (as is probably quite clear from my comment on your Kissin post). I do wonder where Michael Church (The Independent) was - see review titled "Maurizio Pollinim (sic.)...". Now with hindsight, if forced to make the choice, I would quite certainly go to Pollini's above Barenboim's recital of Beethoven's last three sonatas. Now for Schubert, but in between Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic! It's times like this which remind me why it would be near impossible for me to leave London.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon, above. I was at the concert, and I found the first two sonatas unconvincing. The Op 110 (my favourite) was rushed, the fortissimos too loud, and the final fugue lost in a melee of sound. I found Pollini's playing style rather wooden and robotic. However, he found himself in the Op 111 which I really enjoyed: finally, he seemed at ease with Beethoven's sheer unpredictability and weirdness - and his magical lyricism too. How interesting to read another review of this concert: my own review is less than flattering, but then that is the joy of live music!

EC said...

@crosseyedpianist: That I can agree with - Pollini seems to have really divided his audience! Andrew Clements (Guardian) heard less "wooden and robotic", which to be honest, I have never heard from Pollini in a live recital. His Barbican recital of Chopin and Liszt a few years back was another unforgettable evening in my memory. Also it's nice to have this forum to read a range of opinions.

Mark Berry said...

Well, from what I wrote above, there is obviously no doubt with whom I stand in agreement. I also remember the Chopin-Liszt recital with something approaching awe. The present Bach and Beethoven recitals confirmed me in my belief that Pollini is probably the greatest pianist alive. More than being a great pianist, though, he is a great musician, who would no more play to the gallery than certain other pianists would miss an opportunity to do so. And yes, it is very interesting to hear other opinions, since it is clear that a good number of listeners respond quite differently, which is evidently a consequence of his particular style or approach: it does not seem to be what everyone seeks.

I should much rather hear from other audience members, such as here, than from reviews such as that in 'The Independent', which could have been written before the recital, predictable as it is in its tedious recycling of old prejudices concerning 'Pollinim'. But then, that is what one has largely come to expect from most newspapers. I am delighted not to have to choose between Pollini and Barenboim.

James said...

I have long given up on reviews in newspapers; this blog is the first place I turn when seeking intelligent criticism. This recital was, for me, simply extraordinary (as was Pollini's Bach) - even if certain individuals in the audience did their best to disrupt the concentration of others!

Stephen Loxton said...

Pollini's set of Beethoven's late sonata's (Op101-111) absolutely changed my view of these works many years ago: no one I had heard before had played them with a sense of trajectory, or unity or sweep - and no one seems to me to find as much - what can I call it - 'edge' or 'angst' in the last three sonatas, making even ultra modern music seem passe! I have been attending recitals at the South Bank since the International recital series began, and I have heard Beethoven cycles from Brendel, Kovasavitch and Pollini ('96-97). So far as Pollini live is concerned I find him very consistent but agree with Boulezian's assessment that a more finite player's commitment to the music is even more impressive. For me the key to Tuesday was the sweep through the three works; each very individual, but each one building to the next, till we get the musical pychosis (which turns out - or trills out - fine in the end - of the arietta.

Playing the three sonatas straight as Pollini did was an artistic phenomenon I will never forget.

However, it would be dull if we all agreed about everything!

Mark Berry said...

James, thank you so much! I shall have to be careful, though, lest I actually start to believe such kind words...

Stephen, I envy you the experience of hearing the earlier late sonatas too. My first thought after leaving the RFH was that I wished Pollini could have given a second half with the 'Hammerklavier'. I can appreciate, though, what you mean with regard to 'making even ultra modern music seem 'passé'. Some years ago (1998? 1999?) I visited the Salzburg Festival and heard one concert from a series programmed by Pollini. Sadly, he was not playing in that particular concert, but it definitely had his mark upon it. We heard the Palestrina Stabat Matter, two works by Berio, and a late Beethoven quartet. It was the latter that sounded the most extraordinarily contemporary of all, and that is intended as no slight to Berio.

Stephen said...

Did you get to Concert 3 - the last 3 Schubert Sonatas? If not it was played to a very full house who were very warm and receptive. Pollini took D958 & D959 with real intensity and urgency in the outer movements, leaving no sense that here were pretty, melodic but not wholly serious or engaged works. The depth of feeling evoked in the slow movements - especially in D959 was harrowing and made the more so via the aching pathos the music contains and which Pollini's plangent clarity diclosed. D958's pacier moments revealed a few technical mishaps, but Pollini's focus on the narrative sense of works gave the performance great artistic force. After an interval and doubtless 2 double expressos Pollini performed D960 in an achingly impressive manner. The long first movement never stagnated, but it emerged like a majestic bit of sculpture from the finest marble. Moodwise, we were brought to the edge of the abyss that the second movt took us deeply into. Like Phoenix, something amazingly affirmative came raging back in the Third Movt and Pollini went pretty well into the final movement without even a break to mop his brow. The pace and intensity of the last movement, with the fabulous coda, brought the recital to a blazing end. I think the D960 performance was the best thing so far in this series.

Mark Berry said...

Stephen, many thanks for your comments: I couldn't agree more. I have now posted something on the Schubert recital.