Royal Festival Hall
Stockhausen - Klavierstücke VII and IX
Schumann – Concert sans orchestre, op.14
Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31
Believe not a single word you hear from the Pollini nay-sayers. They were out in force following the first concert in this series, a truly astonishing traversal of the First Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Suffice it to say, rarely if at all do they listen. They repeat their threadbare dismissal of Pollini as ‘intellectual’, ‘cold’, ‘cerebral’, and so forth, as if somehow it were possible to perform great music without engaging the intellect. Sometimes one might even be treated to a pointless comparison with a pianist such as Vladimir Horowitz, as if that settles the matter. The same sort of people will say the very same things about Pierre Boulez as a conductor; again, they may hear him but they never listen, and nor should we to them. Of course no artist, not even one so distinguished as this, will always perform at his best, but that is another matter and has in any case not applied to a single one of the four recitals heard so far.
This ought to have been the last in the series of five, but the fourth recital, scheduled for the end of last month, had to be postponed. Ending with Boulez’s second piano sonata will arguably make for a still more fitting climax, though I should be surprised if we were not treated to a little more Chopin by way of encores. The present recital, however, opened with two of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke. It was said a few years ago that Pollini was set to record the entire set for Deutsche Grammophon; let us hope that that claim will prove to be true. One might choose to programme Stockhausen in the context of the avant-garde, or even solely within the context of his own extraordinary œuvre, but it is equally important to perform music such as these piano pieces for what they have become, classics of the repertoire: piano music as well as music that happens to be written for the piano. I could not help but regret that the pointillism with which VII opens had not been preceded, for contrast as well as comparison, by Webern, but there was boldness in opening with Stockhausen, especially when performed so magisterially as here. What was to be heard, were one to listen, was a performance slightly less crystalline, almost more Brahmsian, than might once have been the case, fully in keeping with the presentation of Stockhausen as classic. The same could be said of Pollini’s reading of the ninth. Serial processes are at work, of course, but so are deeply Romantic, expressive purposes. There was nothing to fault, indeed everything to praise, with the pianist’s exquisite diminuendo upon the celebrated repeated chords, but there was never a sense that this was ‘merely’ technique, nor of ‘iciness’ at all. Again, Brahms seemed closer than armchair decriers of Stockhausen would ever have imagined, had they deigned to listen. One had no need to know of the working of the Fibonacci series to sense something of its kind at work: neither composer nor performer sounded in the slightest didactic.
Schumann has long been a particular favourite of Pollini – and his Schumann has long been a particular favourite of mine. The Concert sans orchestre, moreover, has long been a work Pollini has championed. Inevitably, resonances with the Stockhausen pieces emerged, some mediated by Brahms, Schoenberg, and Webern, some more direct. Schumann seemed to gain in radicalism, whilst Stockhausen gained in classicism. It is all very well to say that, of course, but how? Well, the crystalline quality still present, if lesser than prejudice might have had one believe, in the Stockhausen certainly lived and worked its magic – yes, magic – in Schumann’s work. It enabled fantasy and indeed embodied it, but also imparted and embodied structure. The slow movement variations lost nothing in character, yet also peered forward to Webern’s op.27 – a hyper-Romantic work, if ever there were one – whilst the prowess of a concerto soloist, whether composer or performer, was put to fine use both dramatically and colourfully. More than once I thought of Pollini’s recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Claudio Abbado. The technique is still magnificent, if not quite so impregnable as once it was; the pianist’s profound, considered humanity, remains as strong as ever. Prestissimo possible in the finale is an invitation to good sense, to play as fast as is possible, not faster. Nothing was garbled that all might both excite and incite.
What to say of Pollini’s Chopin that has not been said before? Doubtless a great deal, for his enquiring mind has never, whatever his detractors might say, been one to settle upon a reading and repeat it. A greater freedom has continued to be more apparent in recent years, at least when one compares present performances with earlier recordings, stunning though those recordings undoubtedly are. (There may be equally great recordings of the Etudes or the Preludes, but there are none greater.) Perhaps, though, Pollini’s earlier concert performances always told a different tale from his recordings. Having recently heard Charles Rosen give, to my great sadness and surprise, one of the worst professional Chopin performances I have ever experienced, it was instructive, but far more importantly, a true delight to hear Pollini in some of the same repertoire. Where Rosen’s Barcarolle proved a drudge, as if the gondola were dredged, Pollini’s sense of line and unobtrusive phrasing, his infinite gradations of touch, enabled the emergence of a poetic impression such as could only be produced by a first-rate technique, though of course such technique is a beginning, a liberation of the poetic impulse, never an end in itself. The C-sharp minor Prelude bewitched, Pollini’s voice-leading here as elsewhere designed to facilitate harmonic and melodic momentum, not, as one too often hears from other pianists, to underline certain parts for the sake of sounding different. His touch, moreover, remains a wonder: both awe-inspiringly precise and yet perfectly capable of melting where necessary, or desirable, as in the ravishing first encore, the D-flat major Nocturne, op.27 no.2, and the Berceuse, which showed that charm and rigour are as one in performance and composition.
The F minor Ballade told a tale of anguish and anger, but equally of pianistic exploration. Liszt, who had originally been programmed rather than Chopin, was to a certain extent still present in spirit, though of course it is in many ways Chopin’s example that sets free Liszt’s musical, as opposed to technical, imagination. Moreover, the nobility with which Pollini told the tale was all the greater for its universalism. There was to this reading, as to that of the second scherzo, nothing narrowly nationalistic. Nor, indeed, is there to Chopin’s music. The vehemence Pollini imparted both to that coruscating reading of the scherzo and to truly bravura performance of the second encore, the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, was all the greater for having moved far beyond a simple, sub-biographical response. Art, in the hands of a true artist, poses difficult questions more often than it answers them.