Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Pollini Project (3): Schubert, 26 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Sonata in C minor, D 958
Sonata in A major, D 959
Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Many apologies for the length of time it has taken to write this up. Immediately after the recital – though I do not think we should consider it to be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc – my computer contracted a virus, so I have been unable to write for a few days. My memory will doubtless be somewhat fallible by this stage, since I made no notes, so the review will be relatively brief and more generalised than has often been the case. I was determined, however, to write something, so as to maintain the journal aspect of this extraordinary series.

I hope that readers will not tire of my paeans to Maurizio Pollini’s musicianship. I can only assure them that there is no a priori reason for me to be singing them; it is simply a matter of Pollini impressing even beyond highest expectations. Moreover, the challenges he has set himself are great, even by his standards: first Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, then the final three Beethoven sonatas, now the final three Schubert sonatas. If anything, to perform all three of the Schubert group is a taller order still than to perform the Beethoven equivalent, certainly in terms of endurance, though Pollini wisely permitted himself an interval on the present occasion.

This, as one might have predicted, was no comfortable, Biedermeier Schubert: how could it be, with three sonatas all completed in September 1828, less than two months before his death? Yet nor was there anything mawkish, or even morbid, about Pollini’s performances. Indeed, I wondered to begin with whether the urgency of the C minor sonata’s opening Allegro was a little de trop; the fault, however lay with the listener, not the pianist, as he drew his audience in to a searingly dramatic, defiant dramatic re-telling: drama, however, through iron-clad understanding and communication of the structure, rather than attention-seeking rhetoric. (May the Almighty call my days to an end before I must endure Lang Lang in late Schubert!) Likewise the tempo for the first movement of the A major sonata: I might have thought it on the fast side in abstracto, yet in context, it was unerringly right: worlds away from Richter, but often, as Schoenberg remarked, it is the middle road that does not lead to Rome. One could throughout sense the proximity to Beethoven, but also, crucially, the difference. Schubert’s tonal strategies, those glorious, heart-stopping modulations, the sometime subversions of Beethoven’s dominant pull through three-key expositions: all these were tellingly sculpted, as if, I thought, from Carrara marble – and musically dramatised. There was, moreover, not a single instance in which Pollini failed to maintain the long line: throughout this extraordinary three-sonata journey, that long –distance hearing (Fernhören) on which Furtwängler often remarked, was inescapably present. Schubert may present us with ‘heavenly lengths’, but heavenly and justified they are.

And so, it was perhaps no surprise that Pollini, even in this particular programme, did not shirk the exposition repeat in the final sonata. Whilst I could not help but admire Alfred Brendel’s persistent refusal to bow to fundamentalist pressure in that respect, Pollini’s profoundly unsettling, Schoenbergian traversal of the first-time bar convinced one of its necessity. Nowhere, of course, is the expressive blurring of major-minor boundaries more painfully present than here; the time for Mozartian smiling through tears is almost, yet not quite, beyond us. This historical, dramatic necessity was as powerfully conveyed as I can imagine, indeed more so, likewise the threat of disintegration from triplets and hemiolas. And the trills, those left-hand trills: all the more frightening for being so perfectly placed into their context. A better world was vouchsafed, yet ultimately denied, by the well-night unbearable slow movement: one knew that this was not so much unreal, as too real for us. It would be a poor performance indeed that did not breathe the air of another planet when it came to that extraordinary modulation to C major, but this was Alpine air as rare, as Webern-like as I can recall. Pollini also judged to near perfection that difficult limpness of the scherzo: it is extraordinarily awkward to play, or rather to play as the music demands it to be played. Then the left-hand stabs – never have I heard them so terrifying – of the finale, its silences, its attempts to pick itself up again: this, one felt, was the end, not only of the recital, but of something more.


Andrew said...

Funny how people hear different things - I felt Pollini was just bashing though the first two sonatas, and I said as much in my Classicalsource review. D960 was on a different level, though - all the things wrong with the first two were fixed in the B flat sonata. Hey ho. We can't all agree all the time!

Stephen said...

Thanks for this - I think you are spot-on regarding Pollini's sense of the aesthetic and cultural values in Schubert's last and mightiest works. The potent force and energy his performances have are remarkable and in D960 his playing was in particluar magnificent.

Roll on Recital 4!

welker said...

Funny that you describe Pollini's D.959 as "worlds away from Richter", as Richter never recorded this sonata. He did of course record the last sonata with its weird transition to the exposition repeat, unlike practically all pianists before him (Schnabel, Erdmann, Kempff - I think) - even in 1973 a Gramophone reviewer was praising Curzon's version by saying "wisely, he does not repeat the exposition" - so your joke about "fundamentalist pressure" seems a little pointless to me (perhaps I am missing a double irony which would be clarified by reading Brendel's comments on the work).
I am intrigued by your description of the concert: I did not find Pollini's recordings of these works especially revealing, though of course beautifully played, so perhaps he has reached a new level; one can only hope some of his live recordings will be published in some form...

Mark Berry said...

You are right, of course: my wording was somewhat misleading. I should have referred in general to 'Richter's Schubert'. I think I specifically had in mind the celebrated recording of the B-flat sonata that you mention and suspect that I was also thinking of how I imagine he would have performed D 959. It seems a work almost made for him...

I haven't actually heard Pollini's Schubert recordings. My suspicion, though of course it can only be that, based on what others have said about them, is that his readings might have changed considerably over the years.