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.