Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Pollini - Chopin and Liszt, 6 March 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Chopin – Fantasia in F minor, op.49
Two Nocturnes, op.62
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, op.61
Scherzo no.1 in B minor, op.20
Liszt – Nuages gris, S 199
Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S 208
La lugubre gondola I, S 200/1
R.W. – Venezia, S 201
Sonata in B minor, S 178

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

London has heard a good deal of Maurizio Pollini of late, his five-recital series last season a highlight not only of the year but the decade. But here was more, and how welcome it was! (Sadly, I note that he is not scheduled to play in next season’s International Piano Series.) The first half was devoted to Pollini’s beloved Chopin. I am afraid that I still do not really ‘get’ the F minor Fantasia, yet despite a certain matter-of-fact quality – still warming up? – Pollini both delineated its formal divisions and highlighted its experimental qualities. Maybe some day the penny will drop for me. The two op.62 Nocturnes followed, the B major work dreamy yet nevertheless sure of purpose; this is avowedly not a pianist to meander. Its E major successor emerged with vigour, most of all in the contrapuntal involvement of its central section. One sensed, indeed experienced, not only its Bachian roots but its (Schoen)Bergian possibilities. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was performed with a great sense of its sweep, heard as if in a single breath, no mean feat in this particular work. Finally, the B minor Scherzo not only dazzled, but was conceived with an emotional weight and depth that suggested Beethovenian antecedents.

If the first half had taken a little while to catch fire – though to be fair, it was a little while – then Liszt announced himself fully at the very outset of the second. The visionary works of Liszt’s old age are prime Pollini territory, and so it sounded here. Nuages gris was taken more swiftly than in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s relatively recent performance next door at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But it was never driven; rather, its tonal instability was reflected in its flexibility of progress, cumulative power accrued and continued into the pieces that followed. Here, in a sense, was a suite that brought Liszt closer than ever to Schoenberg. Unstern!, the first version of La lugubre gondola, and R.W.- Venezia fed upon each other, bitterness and would-be transfiguration holding each other in check, whilst the waves of Venice lapped against the sails of musical history. The placing and voicing of chords in R.W. – Venezia was an object lesson in how to relate them to one another. This music, complex and yet simple at the same time, is rarely difficult in narrowly technical terms. Its challenges are musical – and metaphysical. It is unlikely those challenges will be more successfully met than they were here.

Finally, the B minor Sonata. Aimard’s December performance could hardly be outdone for intelligent understand and projection of Liszt’s motivic web, but if anything Pollini seemed to go yet further. Yet the clarity with which analytical understanding was communicated was anything but cool; this was a performance fully experienced in white heat. Searingly dramatic, as close to Wagner as ever I have heard it, this was Liszt attempting, Mahler-like, to encompass an entire world. Truly diabolical at times, at others seraphic; the Faustian bargain was rendered apparent. I do not think I have ever heard the fugato that both heralds and denies the true recapitulation sound so possessed: negating, yet inspiring. Only the most uninteresting technician performs this work without an occasional slip, but ninety-nine times out of hundred, Pollini’s technique impressed as ever it had done. Crucially, it remained in the service of a properly musico-dramatic impulse. Again, this vast structure emerged as if heard in a single breath: a performance such as surely Furtwängler or Arrau would have hailed.

Ever generous with encores, Pollini treated us to three. The tenth Transcendental Etude opened as if a coda to the sonata. Though detail might have been occasionally smudged, the white heat more than compensated, as we were plunged in medias res. Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary' Study sounded defiant without the slightest hint of the sentimental exaggeration to which it can sometimes find itself subjected, whilst a breathtakingly limpid Berceuse ravished and tugged upon the heartstrings.


Stephen said...

Good morning Mark! As you wrote your review I was still making my way home to South Somerset. Was the second encore not the 'Winter Wind' from Op25? Whatever, you capture the critcal spirit that Pollini again demonstrated - this extraordinary capacity to present a piece as a whole - maybe the Op49Fantasia is the problem work because it is so clearly very sectional and so making it work as whole is a lot harder?

Stephen Loxton

Stephen Loxton said...

Much enjoyed this recital. I wholly agree with the points you make about Pollini's very distinctive ability to present a work holistically. Amazing approach to the Liszt sonata - the accelerando into the fugal section was about as manic (or diabolic) as it can get... But the net effect is to make the balm at the end the more overwhelming. A pity that we will not hear Pollini in this series next year!

EC said...

Another incredible performance from Pollini, still on top form! His 2007 Chopin and Liszt recital ( still resounds in my mind.. as this will for some time to come. Hard to think of another pianist alive who could have delivered as rewarding an evening.

I must say I was slightly disappointed with the 2012/13 International Piano Series.. particularly with the lack of Pollini, and I was hoping for a return of Zimerman.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Stephen! Sorry about that mental aberration: I have now corrected the text. Funny how one's mind can play tricks so soon...

EC said...

Was the second encore not Chopin's 'Revolutionary' etude? I'm almost certain it was..

Mark Berry said...

Sorry, I was almost sure that it was, and that was what I had originally written. However, when Stephen said it was the 'Winter Wind', I assumed my mind must have been playing tricks with me and 'corrected' it. Glad to know that I am not losing my memory entirely: I shall 're-correct' immediately.