Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Pollini Project (5): Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, 28 June 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Chopin – Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Debussy – Préludes, Book I (selection)
Boulez – Piano Sonata no.2

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

This scintillating conclusion to the Southbank Centre’s ‘Pollini Project’ reprised the programme I heard Maurizio Pollini give in Berlin last April. Fitting though it seemed to conclude with Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, it had actually not been Pollini’s intention to do so: this was to have been the fourth instalment of five, but was postponed in April, owing to illness.

Not only had I heard the programme before; it was the third time within less than a year and a half that I had heard Pollini play the complete Chopin Preludes, the first occasion having been here at the Royal Festival Hall, for a Chopin birthday recital. Pollini’s forward-looking yet never anachronistic conception of Chopin arguably benefits still more from being placed in the context of his successors. Or rather, one hears the music differently – and that may well in part be due to Pollini playing it differently. One can debate the ontological status of the musical work until the cows come home; at the moment, that debate seems to have reached something of an impasse. Performance, however, seems to offer something of a way out. Most great works – I was about to say ‘all’, but thought that an unnecessary hostage to fortune – are better than they can be played, not only in the sense Schnabel intended for Mozart, but also in the sense that no single interpretation will be capable of capturing what may sometimes at least be contradictory aspects of their greatness. Contradiction is a perfectly valid way to approach performance, yet so is something that emphasises particular qualities and trajectories.

Pollini’s Preludes were not here merely forward-looking, though I realise immediately that ‘merely’ is a misnomer. Yet the éclat of, say, the G major Prelude inevitably looked forward to Debussy, just as the fury of the B-flat minor Prelude set the scene for Boulez. On the other hand, more ‘traditional’ and just as necessary virtues such as beauty of touch, clarity of tone, and impeccable, more to the point harmonically revealing, voice-leading were equally to the fore, albeit harnessed to a profoundly musical, rather than externally pianistic account of the score. As Liszt appreciated, a pianist must employ virtuosic means to vanquish the merely virtuosic. What struck me in Berlin as it did here, was the balance struck – or better, dialectic experienced – between the demands of the book as a whole, and characterisation of individual pieces. One might have taken the melting accounts of those deceptively simple E minor and A major Preludes by themselves as text-book accounts of miniatures, just as one might have done the limpid ‘Raindrop’ or the post-Mendelssohn A-flat song without words, or indeed the final tempest of the D minor Prelude, perfectly poised between the D minor fury of Don Giovanni and that of the Second Viennese School. Yet, at the same time, one discerned their place in an unstable, yet viscerally thrilling panorama of tonality, which cannot now quite achieve the comprehensiveness of Bach (click here for the beginning of Pollini’s present journey) and which yet develops, perhaps even questions, the implications of Bach’s example.

With Debussy we heard, as the composer wished, a piano without hammers. Yet Pollini ensured equally that there were direction, harmonic motion, and heightened awareness of the composer’s place between Chopin and Boulez. This was no mere impressionist haze, though that should not be taken to deny ‘atmosphere’; there is much, much more to Debussy, though, than atmosphere. I listened to the selection of Préludes – and I am sure this had at least something to do with Pollini’s performance – more as abstract intimations of the Etudes than as character pieces. The titles came last, as they famously do in Debussy’s own practice, placing them at the end, rather than the beginning, of the pieces. That said, there was no lack of wind, albeit never merely pictorial, in the sails of whole-tone exploration in Voiles, nor in Le vent dans la plaine and the sweeping Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Boulezian perfume, of the night doubtless but more akin to Mahlerian Nachtmusik than a darkness in which precision cannot be perceived, was to be felt in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. A sure hesitancy – if that can be imagined – heightened the exploratory nature in the steps of Des pas sur la neige, which drew, in Pollini's hands, upon a seemingly infinite array of dynamic gradation. La cathédrale engloutie proved a fitting culmination, never too eager to crown: this music simply ‘was’. And in its apparent ‘being’, the monument stood more proudly still.

Despite some extraordinary rudeness from the audience – one woman sitting on the stage almost ran into the pianist in her eagerness to depart before hearing the next piece, whilst a woman two seats away from me shuffled and, mid-performance, asked her husband whether they might leave – Boulez’ second piano sonata, that dialectical work par excellence, offered a truly spellbinding conclusion to this five-concert series. One heard the sonata not simply in the context of Chopin and Debussy, though the technical and harmonic implications of those composers’ works were certainly teased out by the pianist; one also heard ghosts from the earlier composers featured, even when, as in the case of Stockhausen, they came afterwards. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier could not fail to come to mind, of course, as much in the intensification of quasi-fugal destruction and disintegration unleashed in the finale as in the rarity of the air – of another planet? – breathed in the sonatas’ respective slow movements. Yet Bach seemed to be reckoned with too: if the 48 already contains with in itself the chromatic seeds of its own tonal destruction, then Boulez seemed both to celebrate that achievement and to dance upon its grave. Rhythm, in Pollini’s reading, seemed to challenge harmony, not to achieve victory, but somehow to intensify it, very much in the line of Bachian dance and Beethovenian scherzo. The transformations to which Boulez subjected his own scherzo were revealed by Pollini with tender and yet violent care: a typical Boulezian dialectic. For if this were billed as a recital of ‘French’ music, and indeed in a way it was just that, it was only so in one way. There are many paths, and for Boulez, as for modernist music as a whole, the dialectics of a Schoenbergian view of musical history – even when, as in this cycle, and perhaps surprisingly so, the Second Viennese School was not featured – tend to win out. Those who, echoing the young Boulez’s peremptory – albeit in reality, far more nuanced than lazy caricature would suggest – dismissal of Schoenberg, might declare Boulez est mort, should look, and more importantly, listen all around them. This, Pollini showed us, was music that speaks just as intensely to us as it did to the doomed yet understandable desire to scorch the earth in 1948. As the Boulez sonata becomes a classic, and the labyrinth through which Pollini leads us seems to become ever more Bergian, we have not resolved earlier difficulties; they transform themselves, sometimes gracefully, sometimes violently, into new challenges. This is music, Pollini showed us, that will last, that will grow yet further in scope and stature, its implications as limitless as those of serialism itself.

(Pollini's Boulez from 1976)


Fran Wilson said...

Not only his absolute understanding of these pieces, but also his perfect delivery, every colour, shading and nuanced perfectly judged. It is a rare thing to hear such quality in a performance right across the entire programme. The Boulez was a revelation for me - like the first time I heard Messiaen live. Elemental and extraordinary.

Mark Berry said...

And here is Fran's own, highly evocative, review:

Anonymous said...

The Boulez was rubbish. Sounded horrendous. No pleasure in listening to it at all. Rest fantastic.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for that enlightening comment, though it is unclear whether you refer to work, performance, or both. I assume in any case that your categorical judgement upon intimate knowledge of the score and/or its performance history.

James said...

Mark, thank you for a terrific series of reviews on the Pollini's five concerts. I was able to attend all but the penultimate performance and, to my mind, the series demonstrated the pinnacle of musicianship. Perhaps the technical security that Pollini once had is no longer always there, but the acute emotion and the intelligence in Pollini's readings seemed to me to be present in every performance, demonstrating again the falseness and laziness of the charge of coldness.
While it's invidious to do so, I must mention the audience at last night's performance. It was one of the worst I have ever experienced at the Royal Festival Hall or, indeed, anywhere. I had inexplicably booked in the back stalls and was treated to the following in my immediate vicinity: rampant bronchial explosions, a mobile phone ringing during the Debussy, bags being unzipped and unlocked, and, behind me, two people who giggled throughout. The gentleman beside me was talking to his companion as Pollini began the Boulez; when a fierce stare failed to do the trick, I had to grab his arm to get him to desist. The sight of so many people exiting after the Debussy to avoid the Boulez was truly depressing and incredibly rude.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, James! The Debussy mobile call was bad enough, but the same person, sitting on the stage, in full view, proceeded a few minutes later noisily to open a bottle of something fizzy. His reaction was not to act mortified, but to giggle for several minutes along with those sitting next to him. The behaviour of certain elements within the audience was unpardonable: I'd ban them from ever attending a concert there again. Such music demands absolute concentration, which one simply cannot devote in the face of distraction. Even if they care nothing for the music, do these people have no regard for the performer or for other members of the audience?

Keith W Clancy said...

I am horrified to read the comments regarding the audience. I live in New Zealand and I would have thought London audiences would have better manners. How disrespectful of a great artist like Pollini (the only pianist I have heard who plays the Boulez 2nd with anything like accuracy and fidelity as well). I would add that someone who derives "pleasure" from Debussy and Chopin but cannot derive it from Boulez (and who probably didn't even try) is probably not even listening to what gives him pleasure either. The "pleasure" is probably just the shiver of familiarity. I have loved the Boulez since I was a teenager (ie. before I was told that I shouldn't find such music "musical" at all, because such a piece could never provide any "listening pleasure"). To me it is one of the few piano sonatas after Beethoven that stands up to him on his own turf and meets the challenge. Should concert halls print leaflets reiterating elementary manners?

William Evans said...

Thanks for this thoughtful review. Those of us who weren't able to be there have a wonderful record of the Boulez, thanks to this youtube clip:

It is wonderful to hear how Pollini's performance of the work has evolved. I think I prefer this rendering of the first movement even to that of his studio recording.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, William. I do hope that he is permitted to re-record the work (perhaps even a live recording). The studio account remains stunning, but I think Pollini's understanding has deepened and the world needs to hear that.

William Evans said...

I agree, Mark. It would be wonderful to have another recording of the Boulez -- and if only he could be persuaded to record the notations, which he has performed in the past, and so beautifully:

I have always wanted to hear him play the notations next to the Chopin preludes.

I hope he will record his Stockhausen, too. I've heard that he is indeed planning to do so. I'm lucky to have tickets to a recital he's giving in Paris this February. He is pairing several Beethoven sonatas - nos 24, 25, 26, & 27 - with Stockhausen, I think Klavierstuck X. And I will hear him play Liszt and Chopin in America. But I'm especially excited for the Paris recital, because I've never heard his Stockhausen in person.

Thanks again for the many fine reviews. Best, Will