Friday 2 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (1): Maurizio Pollini - Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez

Philharmonie, Berlin

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

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

What a difference both programming context and the audience make! A month ago, I had heard Maurizio Pollini perform the Chopin Preludes in London, at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of an all-Chopin recital. That had been a fine performance by any standards, but this one seemed to benefit from the forward-looking context to Pollini’s modernist Chopin – and certainly benefited from a quieter audience (not difficult, given the outrageous level of coughing in London).

Where the overriding concern of the London concert, insofar as one could discern through the audience participation, appeared to have been to present the twenty-four Chopin preludes as a tonal cycle, there now seemed to be a more perfect balance with the impulse to characterise individual preludes. Tonal unity was certainly present; it seemed, however, more of a springboard for further exploration, perhaps with the Debussy and Boulez works to come in mind. It reminded me that Boulez, whom one might expect to have favoured the late, atonal works of Liszt, once remarked that he found the middle-period works of that composer, like many piano works by Chopin and Schumann, most important, since they had so expanded the horizons of the instrument. Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez certainly all did in the works – and performances – heard this evening. After a relatively neutral C major opening, its relative minor successor took on the form of a mysterious processional, suggestive if necessarily ambiguous in narrative terms. The next piece, the G major prelude already suggested the technical and poetic experimentation of Debussy, as the penultimate F major piece would also do, likewise the almost but not quite abstract aquatic sense of the F-sharp major prelude, in which Ravel and Boulez might also be heard to beckon. Simple dignity in the E minor prelude highlighted the subtlety of Chopin’s left-hand harmonic shifts. A kinship with Liszt’s pianistic outpouring announced itself in a number of pieces, for instance the preludes in F-sharp minor and its diabolically virtuosic – certainly in this performance – counterpart in B minor. (What it might be to hear Pollini perform Liszt’s Transcendental Studies!) And filigree delicacy of fingerwork was to be heard in abundance in the trio of numbers nine to eleven. The blackness, and not just in terms of the notes on the keyboard, of the E-flat minor prelude coruscated, providing the perfect setting for contrast with its successor, the ‘Raindrop’, which emerged here as the focus of the entire cycle. Peerless voicing, the beauty of Chopin’s cantilena, and the grandeur of the climax were equally impressive. And anyone who says Pollini cannot do charm should have heard the almost Mendelssohnian A-flat prelude. A rare slip in the opening of the F minor prelude reminded one that, thankfully, the pianist is not quite infallible; otherwise, his virtuosity in this piece truly scorched. The C minor prelude shone: implacable yet tender. And finally, we heard Polish defiance in the D minor conclusion, the pianist’s command of line so complete that one barely noticed.

Pollini had originally been advertised to perform Debussy’s Etudes, but he elected instead to play an equally appropriate selection from the first book of Préludes. Those who have called him cold should have heard these performances – though coughing unhelpfully intervened – for as full a realisation of Debussy’s poetic imagination as one might conceive. A new yet related sound-world announced itself from the outset of Voiles, likewise the instrument with hammers the composer so desired. Perfection of fingerwork in Le vent dans la plaine never sounded merely efficient. Its successor, Les sons et les parfums dans l’air du soir demonstrated that Pollini can sound sultry too, whilst still permitting is to hear every note. Subtle insistence of the ‘Scotch snap’ permeated the melody and structure of Des pas sur la neige, whilst Lisztian inheritance stood very much to the fore in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. La cathédrale engloutie was a wonderful choice for the conclusion: dignity, grandeur, and a delight in harmony and sonority in perfect counterpoise.

This was the first, but will not be the last, of the Berlin Festtage to celebrate Boulez’s eighty-fifth birthday. It is astonishing to think that the second sonata, a landmark in new music, is now more than sixty years old, but so it is. Here we heard a performance upon an instrument that alternated between hammerless Debussy and violent presentiments of Le Marteau sans maître, the ultimate hammered work (which will be heard on Easter Sunday). The opening brought instant éclat, reminding one of Messiaen’s description of his young pupil as like a lion flayed alive. There was something in the first two movements both of the rhetoric of the earlier, brief Notations, but also of the serial expansionism that the pianist conveyed to perfection. In the second, Webernesque pointillism blossomed into something considerably more expansive, though its roots remained discernible. (Look no further than Pollini for an unbeatable performance of the Austrian composer’s Variations.) Poetry could be heard just as much as in Chopin and Debussy, with this slow movement proving a focal point equivalent to the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude in the first half. And then, the appearance of a malignant sprite – post-Liszt? post-Ravel? better just to say Boulez – provided the impetus for this movement’s further deconstruction of Beethovenian sonata form, a process continued in what one might consider the ‘scherzo’, characterised by pyrotechnics aplenty, albeit pyrotechnics with an almost Bakunin-like ‘creative destruction’ in mind. One heard in the opening of the final movement, as elsewhere, Debussy vying with Beethoven in the Boulezian penumbra. Here truly was an attempt to forge a new language, a new structure unfolding before our ears. Is this work becoming a classic? It probably already has, but no more than its antagonist, the Hammerklavier sonata, will it ever solely be that; the challenges for performer and listener will always be great, likewise the rewards. I recalled my head spinning from the first time I ever heard this work, on Pollini’s ‘classic’ recording; that can still happen, and did here. The detail of response was remarkable, but perhaps most memorable of all was that stillness, eerily reminiscent of the Alpine air breathed in the slow movement of Beethoven’s op.106, remade and re-breathed in the coda.

The composer was present and clearly delighted. Eventually, prodded by Daniel Barenboim, also in the audience, he went to the stage to greet Pollini and to acknowledge the applause. A standing ovation for both musicians was inevitable yet deserved.