Friday 28 January 2011

Pollini Project (1): Bach, 28 January 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Well-tempered Clavier, Book One

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

With this recital, Maurizio Pollini opened a five-concert series at the Royal Festival Hall. Subsequent concerts will feature: the final three Beethoven piano sonatas; the final three from Schubert; a ‘French’ exploration of music by Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez (the second sonata, which Pollini performed so magnificently last year in Berlin; and last but certainly not least, in May, more Chopin, Schumann, and Stockhausen. I cannot help but regret the absence of the Second Viennese School; Pollini has after all recorded the piano works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in versions that may occasionally be equalled but could hardly be surpassed. However, given the riches on offer, it would be ungracious in the extreme to carp further. Everything is welcome; it is a sign of the pianist’s greatness that one wishes there could be more still. Certainly that was my fervent desire at the end of tonight’s recital, the first time I had heard Pollini play Bach in concert.

This was not just any Bach, of course, but the first book of the Well-tempered Clavier. As I remarked upon hearing Angela Hewitt perform the same music almost precisely two years ago, every cliché about this ‘Old Testament’ of the piano repertoire is true. None, however, comes close to expressing its greatness; only study and performance can accomplish that. Even the first book, let alone both taken together, seems to encompass everything ; perhaps it does. Yet there is always a danger that in considering a great work of art to be ‘about’ everything, it might seem to become about nothing in particular. One has to make choices, considered choices one would hope, but in the knowledge that any conception will remain partial. Performing the book as a whole is likely to give rise to different choices – different problems and opportunities too – than if one were performing one or more of the Preludes and Fugues in a mixed recital. This goes for the listener as well as the performer – and, one would hope, for the scholar too, if only he might prove brave enough to shun the idiocies of ‘authenticity’.

Pollini certainly enabled one to consider the book as a whole. Just as, last year in the same venue, he had presented the complete Chopin Preludes as a conspectus of the tonal universe, impressing upon one, though never pedantically, the enormous debt Chopin owed to Bach, here Pollini returned the compliment and went further. Bach’s music emerged as the centre not only of the tonal universe, every key, major and minor, treated both individually and as part of a total scheme of creation, but also of musical history. No single piece was over characterised in terms of the greater whole; by the same token, none sacrificed its individual qualities for the sake of that whole. Bach and Pollini opened up a myriad of connections; it barely matters which were intended and which were not. The grave stile antico fugues, for instance that in C-sharp minor, paid homage to the great age of polyphony – and perhaps to a conception of history that has Bach as its culmination: the ‘everything leads up to him’ approach. In many ways it does, but it seems equally the case that almost everything comes from him – give or take a Berlioz, and even Debussy admitted that one had to learn how to write a fugue in order not to have to write a fugue. The labyrinthine ways of Romanticism and the Second Viennese School are all present here, and they certainly were in, for instance, the extraordinary Largo fugue in B minor with which the book concludes. From the moment I laid eyes upon it, and then began to learn to play it, Berg above all other composers came to my mind. Pollini may not be performing the Berg Sonata in this series, but I felt satisfied that I had in any case heard here a performance that took in the cumulative power and dramatic integrity of Wozzeck.

The Bach of the Passions was here too – at least the Passions as we used to hear them, when they were understood to have subject matter rather than machine patterns. In the G-sharp minor Prelude, one might have thought oneself in a successor to one of the great choruses, whilst its successor fugue cast its chromatic lance far into the future, dissonances relished not in themselves – this is not Debussy – but because of where they are placed and why. Their emancipation may seem imminent but it is not immanent. What did sound immanent, however, were the very spirit of music and of musical exploration. Perhaps Liszt was not the only composer of Faustian music for the piano.

If pushed to find fault, I might point to the A-flat major Prelude, which, for all its declamatory quality, might have benefited from a little light and shade. Yet that lack was so unusual that it almost provided variation in itself, a further layer to Bach’s – and Pollini’s – achievement. There were very occasional slips, yet they mattered not at all; if anything, they, along with the pianist's singing, further deepened the profound humanity of the performance, hammering a final nail into the coffin of the always absurd charge of icy perfectionism.

I almost resist the temptation to say this, but sadly a report would be quite distorted if I did not mention the distracting antics of a pernicious section of the audience. All of the usual bronchial disturbance was present, but in greater degree than I have suffered for a while. I also had the misfortune to suffer next to me a heavy breather who from time to time would rub with his foot a plastic bag beneath his seat; I cannot imagine that there were not similar cases around the hall. If only it were possible to ignore the coughing and the rest … but when music and performance demand that one concentrate so closely, one simply cannot. Pollini seemed irritated, and began to pre-empt the coughs. To an extent, that added to the cumulative effect of the performance, but performing choices should not have to be based upon lessening selfish behaviour. Nevertheless, as soon as the performance was over, my first thought was how I wished I could hear it again – and, if at all possible, at once.

Details of the remaining performances may be found by clicking here. Beg, borrow, or steal, if you must...