Wednesday 16 February 2011

Pollini Project (2): Beethoven, 15 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

For the second of his five recitals, Maurizio Pollini followed up Book One of the piano’s Old Testament with the final three chapters of the New, though one might perhaps be better to leave Hans von Bülow on one side and speak of the holy ground of Mount Sinai. Without the slightest preciousness – indeed, I cannot think of a less precious pianist – Pollini left us in no doubt of the sheer greatness not only of the final three Beethoven sonatas but of his musicianship. This, quite simply, was musical performance of a kind one would be blessed to hear but once in one’s life – and there are still three recitals to come.

Wisely, Pollini elected to give the three sonatas without an interval, allowing one all the more clearly to make any connections one might wish. They were not elided into one super-sonata, but the kinship as we ascended Parnassus was undeniable. Opening with the E major sonata, op.109, we were immediately plunged into a world both rarely divine and utterly human. The complaints one occasionally still hears concerning alleged distance, coolness, whatever it might be, could not have been more soundly refuted. This was pianism of an intensity that both incorporated and surpassed what one might almost dare to call ‘mere’ Romanticism. The first movement’s tempo changes were as convincingly handled as I have heard, not merely in technical terms, but above all with respect to Beethoven’s meaning: we might not be able to convey that meaning in words, but that does not mean it is not there. The sheer beauty of the chordal passages was something to savour in itself, though never narcissistic. Now that Pollini is occasionally a little more fallible technically than once he was, one might argue that the sense of struggle is all the greater; such was certainly the case with the Prestissimo. Not that there is anything technically lacking, far from it, but the way a pianist approaches this music at different times in his life can – and certainly did – emphasise certain aspects more or less. I should never want to be without earlier recordings, but, had I to choose, the philosophical humanism of this account would win out. The closing theme and variations were a case in point: Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung, Beethoven writes for the theme, adding the vocal mezza voce, and this was precisely what we heard – and what we heard extended, transformed, throughout the movement’s progress, the trills as melodic, as non-ornamental, as anyone could ever have heard. For once, I shall leave the matter of coughing aside, irritating though it was; however, I am sad to report that it became increasingly difficult to listen, try as one might, owing to what sounded like a malfunctioning hearing aid. Doubtless it was an accident, but might I make a plea to those sporting such devices to take care as paranoid as mine when it comes to my telephone? It was a great sadness indeed to have such a performance severely compromised.

Songfulness was equally the hallmark of the first movement of op.110, its trills again being a case in point. The Allegro molto was urgent, vital in every sense of the word, but never brash. Pollini seems to have developed a mellower touch – and I suspect that he was assisted by an excellent instrument in this case. Rarely if ever can the una corda passage have sounded so magical; whatever the ideologues might tell you, there is absolutely no need for a period instrument here. The handling of the ensuing recitative was equally fine, capturing in perfect balance – or dialectic – the demands of the apparently improvisatory and dramatic necessity, before arioso painful and yet consoling beyond words was heard. Fugal lessons learned from Bach – both by Beethoven and Pollini – were very much to be heard thereafter, its inversion in both composition and performance as much a masterstroke, or so it seemed, as the Art of Fugue itself. Now could Pollini be persuaded to perform that…?

Beethoven’s C minor daemon was not yet slain, of course, as op.111 showed beyond doubt. Yet Pollini captured to near perfection the tension between recollection, perhaps even intensification, of earlier struggles, and a new, ‘late’ voice. This should not sound like op.13, and did not, though the composer was recognisably the same; something more was at stake. Counterpoint and harmony sounded as two sides of the same late Classical coin, which is just as it should be – though far rarer in performance than one might suspect. The second movement captured equally well the balance and/or dialectic between sublime simplicity and necessary complexity. Pollini made no apologies for passages that lesser souls might consider harmonically ‘simple’; the placing of every note was truly made to tell. There are, or at least were, many great tunes still to be written in C major, with apologies to Schoenberg. Rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, was key throughout. I cannot recall a performance in which the astounding ‘boogie-woogie’ variation sounded so well-performed; it still astonished, of course, but it grew inexorably from what had gone before. Beethovenian variation is something very special indeed. So were these performances.

Later this month, we shall hear the final three Schubert sonatas...