Monday, 20 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Maurizio Pollini, 16 August 2007

Schumann - Allegro in B minor, Op.8
Schumann - Kreisleriana: Acht Fantasien, Op.16

Chopin: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45
Chopin: Ballade no.2 in F major, Op.38
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Chopin: Scherzo no.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39
Chopin: Grande Polonaise brilliante in A flat major, Op.53

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Maurizio Pollini's recitals in the Grosses Festspielhaus appear to have become an annual fixture - and rightly so, for a Pollini recital is always an event. This is not simply a matter of pianism or indeed musicianship, straightforwardly understood. Pollini certainly has at least as good a claim as anyone else to be considered the greatest living pianist, and if pushed, I should probably opt for him in that futile pursuit of ranking. But his programming, rather like that of Boulez, has always been a joy and a revelation in itself. A case in point would be last year's Salzburg recital, in which he illuminated late Mozart solo works with the crystalline beauty of Webern's Variations, Op.27, and the Boulez Second Piano Sonata's violent confrontation with and Aufhebung of the great Classical tradition, including both Mozart and Webern. This recital of Schumann and Chopin might seem less dramatic in such terms, but the thoughtfulness of his choices became ever clearer, without needing to be spelled out.

At the core of the programme, and of Pollini's performance, lay Schumann's musical and psychological dialectic between Florestan and Eusebius. There are doubtless many ways in which this could be expressed, but given its more or less explicit presence in the Kreisleriana, it seems especially apt. Fiery passion and inward self-searching are not in fact opposites, but mutually reinforcing products of the relationship between passion and intellect, which shapes not only the music of Schumann and Chopin, but also Pollini's response to it.

Pollini is one of the very few musicians to champion the Allegro, Op.8. In its progression from B minor to B major, it might seem to ape the classical Beethoven progression from darkness to light. In a sense it does, but already the state of tonality seems more blurred than in many of Beethoven's masterpieces. There is also already that sense of fragility and even breakdown which would become more manifest in late Schumann. Pollini's touch, in succession and sometimes even at once both crystalline and achingly tender, never yielded to the urge to sentimentalise. One would hardly expect this from him, but it is worth remarking upon, given some of the exhibitionistic excesses visited upon Romantic piano music. Kreisleriana continued in similar vein, with the added quality of sharply focused characterisation. Here was fought out the battle between Florestan and Eusebius, between Schumann's inner creative and destructive demons, between Classical formalism and wild-eyed Romanticism. Pollini's astonishing technical accomplishment, not least in the tricky lower registers of the keyboard, might have been expected, but that is no reason to take it for granted.

Chopin is not Schumann, of course, although the relationship between the two composers is fascinating. So these Schumannesque battles had to be subtly transposed to a different, yet related plane. Pollini, whatever his gainsayers might claim, has always been at his very best in Chopin, and this was no exception. The inner mystery of the Nocturnes was revealed in spell-binding fashion. Such were the infinite variety and gentleness of his touch, that one could almost fancy oneself in a Debussian world of piano without hammers. Not that the sterner moments went for nothing, far from it, as we discovered even more in the F major Ballade and C sharp minor Scherzo. These were tours de force of virtuoso pianism, but they were also great dramas, and the swift mood changes of the Ballade in particular were made to tell, without exaggerated point-scoring. As with the Schumann pieces, one could perceive that the moods were in some sense different perceptions or conceptions of the same musical Idea, not least since the structures were so clearly delineated. Just because Chopin's structures are not those of the Classical masters does not mean that they are not to be observed; indeed, this makes it all the more imperative that they be perceived. This was a great recital indeed, one that excited, provoked, and moved. So did the three encores: the 'Raindrop' Prelude, the 'Revolutionary' Study, and the G minor Ballade. The Ballade was played last, and provided the most thrilling peroration imaginable.