Wednesday 3 March 2010

Maurizio Pollini - Chopin, 1 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23
Two Nocturnes, op.27
Etudes, op.25:
No. 1 in A-flat major
No.2 in F minor
No.3 in F major
No.4 in A minor
No.7 in C-sharp minor
No.10 in B minor
No.11 in A minor
No.12 in C minor

The greatest living Chopin pianist, indeed the greatest living pianist, for an all-Chopin recital on the composer’s (alleged) two-hundred birthday: how could it fail? Despite some reservations, or stronger, I heard from some of those attending, I had very few cavils with the performance, which on the whole I found stunning, especially during the second half. Yet this, sadly, was insofar as I was able to concentrate. On far too many occasions recently I have been driven to bemoan audience ‘interaction’. (How very New Labour!) To have Maurizio Pollini perform the complete Chopin Preludes with a background – or should that be foreground – of incessant coughing, shuffling, chattering, and even, God help us, walking around the hall, was a dispiriting experience. One woman in front of me was sipping from a plastic cup of wine! I comfort myself with the fact that I shall hear him perform the same work next month in Berlin, in a Chopin-Debussy-Boulez programme, when I hope to be able to reach a more considered view.

What I can say is that, a few, largely irrelevant technical blemishes aside, Pollini presented a dazzling prospectus of Chopin’s tonal journey. Each prelude was very much integrated into a greater whole: a homage to Bach, but equally a vivid demonstration of what piano and pianist can do. We heard not so much a set of character pieces but a more ‘objective’ – loaded word, I know – but a journey through the tonal and pianistic universe. This is not to say that none of the individual preludes possessed character. The A major and ‘Raindrop’ Preludes brought tears to my eyes in their noble, unassuming dignity, whilst the violence of the D minor Prelude looked forward to Pollini’s (almost equally?) beloved Schoenberg’s Op.11. Allegro appassionato indeed! Much of the audience, however, seemed merely to resent the lack of pauses in which to cough. I cannot imagine why, however, since those people carried on doing so anyway.

The proto-Schoenbergian – Brahmsian? – darkness of that final prelude was intensified in the G minor Ballade: a towering performance, more ‘Romantic’ or expressionist even, than much of the first half. The Devil-may-care attitude Pollini seemed to adopt was in many respects quite unlike that of his former crystalline self, perhaps more akin to the unpredictability of Daniel Barenboim. The two Op.27 Nocturnes, by contrast, were seductive in the extreme. Siren voices called and bewitched, yet they exuded authority by virtue of Pollini’s supreme formal command. I do not wish to exaggerate, but there was perhaps a slight lessening of bronchial pollution here; otherwise, I might have found myself with little to say at all. Normal service, however, was resumed for the selection from the Op.25 set of Etudes. Here, Pollini’s trademark éclat was once again on show, insofar as one could manage to concentrate. It was perhaps slightly odd to perform eight out of the twelve, but if selection there must be, it was done well here. The sense of Chopin marrying technical and musical innovation, till death them do part, was superbly captured, with prescient hints of Debussy’s late marriage of classicism and experimentalism. Again, there were a few – and I mean a few – instances of less than perfect execution, but only a Beckmesser would care. Typically generous with encores, Pollini expanded Chopin’s world with another study, a mazurka, and a scherzo. The Revolutionary Study should have brought the house down and did, though one can only assume that tuberculosis had already brought down many of those present.

What, then, is to be done about audiences, or rather about the selfish minority – at least, I hope that it is a minority – increasingly insistent upon ruining performances for the rest of us? Short of installing a Stasi-like system of surveillance and reporting, a tempting thought, it is very difficult to know. I was surprised to notice that the Royal Festival Hall had deleted the later part of Sir Ian McKellen’s pre-concert announcement; the audience was no longer requested even ‘to keep coughing to a minimum’. This may or may not have had any effect, but it seems odd. Allowing those who are ill, perhaps in practice just anyone, to return tickets on the day of the performance would surely be sensible. Perhaps we have to be more strenuous in our disapproval, mortally embarrassing though we English may find such direct action. At this rate, however, the full house achieved for Pollini will become a thing of the past, if those who care about the music begin to reject live performance in favour of the uninterrupted recorded version at home. A positive footnote, though: it was good to see Matthias Goerne in the stalls.