Wednesday 2 March 2011

Pollini Project (3): Schubert, 26 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Sonata in C minor, D 958
Sonata in A major, D 959
Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Many apologies for the length of time it has taken to write this up. Immediately after the recital – though I do not think we should consider it to be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc – my computer contracted a virus, so I have been unable to write for a few days. My memory will doubtless be somewhat fallible by this stage, since I made no notes, so the review will be relatively brief and more generalised than has often been the case. I was determined, however, to write something, so as to maintain the journal aspect of this extraordinary series.

I hope that readers will not tire of my paeans to Maurizio Pollini’s musicianship. I can only assure them that there is no a priori reason for me to be singing them; it is simply a matter of Pollini impressing even beyond highest expectations. Moreover, the challenges he has set himself are great, even by his standards: first Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, then the final three Beethoven sonatas, now the final three Schubert sonatas. If anything, to perform all three of the Schubert group is a taller order still than to perform the Beethoven equivalent, certainly in terms of endurance, though Pollini wisely permitted himself an interval on the present occasion.

This, as one might have predicted, was no comfortable, Biedermeier Schubert: how could it be, with three sonatas all completed in September 1828, less than two months before his death? Yet nor was there anything mawkish, or even morbid, about Pollini’s performances. Indeed, I wondered to begin with whether the urgency of the C minor sonata’s opening Allegro was a little de trop; the fault, however lay with the listener, not the pianist, as he drew his audience in to a searingly dramatic, defiant dramatic re-telling: drama, however, through iron-clad understanding and communication of the structure, rather than attention-seeking rhetoric. (May the Almighty call my days to an end before I must endure Lang Lang in late Schubert!) Likewise the tempo for the first movement of the A major sonata: I might have thought it on the fast side in abstracto, yet in context, it was unerringly right: worlds away from Richter, but often, as Schoenberg remarked, it is the middle road that does not lead to Rome. One could throughout sense the proximity to Beethoven, but also, crucially, the difference. Schubert’s tonal strategies, those glorious, heart-stopping modulations, the sometime subversions of Beethoven’s dominant pull through three-key expositions: all these were tellingly sculpted, as if, I thought, from Carrara marble – and musically dramatised. There was, moreover, not a single instance in which Pollini failed to maintain the long line: throughout this extraordinary three-sonata journey, that long –distance hearing (Fernhören) on which Furtwängler often remarked, was inescapably present. Schubert may present us with ‘heavenly lengths’, but heavenly and justified they are.

And so, it was perhaps no surprise that Pollini, even in this particular programme, did not shirk the exposition repeat in the final sonata. Whilst I could not help but admire Alfred Brendel’s persistent refusal to bow to fundamentalist pressure in that respect, Pollini’s profoundly unsettling, Schoenbergian traversal of the first-time bar convinced one of its necessity. Nowhere, of course, is the expressive blurring of major-minor boundaries more painfully present than here; the time for Mozartian smiling through tears is almost, yet not quite, beyond us. This historical, dramatic necessity was as powerfully conveyed as I can imagine, indeed more so, likewise the threat of disintegration from triplets and hemiolas. And the trills, those left-hand trills: all the more frightening for being so perfectly placed into their context. A better world was vouchsafed, yet ultimately denied, by the well-night unbearable slow movement: one knew that this was not so much unreal, as too real for us. It would be a poor performance indeed that did not breathe the air of another planet when it came to that extraordinary modulation to C major, but this was Alpine air as rare, as Webern-like as I can recall. Pollini also judged to near perfection that difficult limpness of the scherzo: it is extraordinarily awkward to play, or rather to play as the music demands it to be played. Then the left-hand stabs – never have I heard them so terrifying – of the finale, its silences, its attempts to pick itself up again: this, one felt, was the end, not only of the recital, but of something more.