Wednesday 29 June 2011

Pollini Project (5): Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, 28 June 2011

Royal Festival Hall

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

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

This scintillating conclusion to the Southbank Centre’s ‘Pollini Project’ reprised the programme I heard Maurizio Pollini give in Berlin last April. Fitting though it seemed to conclude with Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, it had actually not been Pollini’s intention to do so: this was to have been the fourth instalment of five, but was postponed in April, owing to illness.

Not only had I heard the programme before; it was the third time within less than a year and a half that I had heard Pollini play the complete Chopin Preludes, the first occasion having been here at the Royal Festival Hall, for a Chopin birthday recital. Pollini’s forward-looking yet never anachronistic conception of Chopin arguably benefits still more from being placed in the context of his successors. Or rather, one hears the music differently – and that may well in part be due to Pollini playing it differently. One can debate the ontological status of the musical work until the cows come home; at the moment, that debate seems to have reached something of an impasse. Performance, however, seems to offer something of a way out. Most great works – I was about to say ‘all’, but thought that an unnecessary hostage to fortune – are better than they can be played, not only in the sense Schnabel intended for Mozart, but also in the sense that no single interpretation will be capable of capturing what may sometimes at least be contradictory aspects of their greatness. Contradiction is a perfectly valid way to approach performance, yet so is something that emphasises particular qualities and trajectories.

Pollini’s Preludes were not here merely forward-looking, though I realise immediately that ‘merely’ is a misnomer. Yet the éclat of, say, the G major Prelude inevitably looked forward to Debussy, just as the fury of the B-flat minor Prelude set the scene for Boulez. On the other hand, more ‘traditional’ and just as necessary virtues such as beauty of touch, clarity of tone, and impeccable, more to the point harmonically revealing, voice-leading were equally to the fore, albeit harnessed to a profoundly musical, rather than externally pianistic account of the score. As Liszt appreciated, a pianist must employ virtuosic means to vanquish the merely virtuosic. What struck me in Berlin as it did here, was the balance struck – or better, dialectic experienced – between the demands of the book as a whole, and characterisation of individual pieces. One might have taken the melting accounts of those deceptively simple E minor and A major Preludes by themselves as text-book accounts of miniatures, just as one might have done the limpid ‘Raindrop’ or the post-Mendelssohn A-flat song without words, or indeed the final tempest of the D minor Prelude, perfectly poised between the D minor fury of Don Giovanni and that of the Second Viennese School. Yet, at the same time, one discerned their place in an unstable, yet viscerally thrilling panorama of tonality, which cannot now quite achieve the comprehensiveness of Bach (click here for the beginning of Pollini’s present journey) and which yet develops, perhaps even questions, the implications of Bach’s example.

With Debussy we heard, as the composer wished, a piano without hammers. Yet Pollini ensured equally that there were direction, harmonic motion, and heightened awareness of the composer’s place between Chopin and Boulez. This was no mere impressionist haze, though that should not be taken to deny ‘atmosphere’; there is much, much more to Debussy, though, than atmosphere. I listened to the selection of Préludes – and I am sure this had at least something to do with Pollini’s performance – more as abstract intimations of the Etudes than as character pieces. The titles came last, as they famously do in Debussy’s own practice, placing them at the end, rather than the beginning, of the pieces. That said, there was no lack of wind, albeit never merely pictorial, in the sails of whole-tone exploration in Voiles, nor in Le vent dans la plaine and the sweeping Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Boulezian perfume, of the night doubtless but more akin to Mahlerian Nachtmusik than a darkness in which precision cannot be perceived, was to be felt in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. A sure hesitancy – if that can be imagined – heightened the exploratory nature in the steps of Des pas sur la neige, which drew, in Pollini's hands, upon a seemingly infinite array of dynamic gradation. La cathédrale engloutie proved a fitting culmination, never too eager to crown: this music simply ‘was’. And in its apparent ‘being’, the monument stood more proudly still.

Despite some extraordinary rudeness from the audience – one woman sitting on the stage almost ran into the pianist in her eagerness to depart before hearing the next piece, whilst a woman two seats away from me shuffled and, mid-performance, asked her husband whether they might leave – Boulez’ second piano sonata, that dialectical work par excellence, offered a truly spellbinding conclusion to this five-concert series. One heard the sonata not simply in the context of Chopin and Debussy, though the technical and harmonic implications of those composers’ works were certainly teased out by the pianist; one also heard ghosts from the earlier composers featured, even when, as in the case of Stockhausen, they came afterwards. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier could not fail to come to mind, of course, as much in the intensification of quasi-fugal destruction and disintegration unleashed in the finale as in the rarity of the air – of another planet? – breathed in the sonatas’ respective slow movements. Yet Bach seemed to be reckoned with too: if the 48 already contains with in itself the chromatic seeds of its own tonal destruction, then Boulez seemed both to celebrate that achievement and to dance upon its grave. Rhythm, in Pollini’s reading, seemed to challenge harmony, not to achieve victory, but somehow to intensify it, very much in the line of Bachian dance and Beethovenian scherzo. The transformations to which Boulez subjected his own scherzo were revealed by Pollini with tender and yet violent care: a typical Boulezian dialectic. For if this were billed as a recital of ‘French’ music, and indeed in a way it was just that, it was only so in one way. There are many paths, and for Boulez, as for modernist music as a whole, the dialectics of a Schoenbergian view of musical history – even when, as in this cycle, and perhaps surprisingly so, the Second Viennese School was not featured – tend to win out. Those who, echoing the young Boulez’s peremptory – albeit in reality, far more nuanced than lazy caricature would suggest – dismissal of Schoenberg, might declare Boulez est mort, should look, and more importantly, listen all around them. This, Pollini showed us, was music that speaks just as intensely to us as it did to the doomed yet understandable desire to scorch the earth in 1948. As the Boulez sonata becomes a classic, and the labyrinth through which Pollini leads us seems to become ever more Bergian, we have not resolved earlier difficulties; they transform themselves, sometimes gracefully, sometimes violently, into new challenges. This is music, Pollini showed us, that will last, that will grow yet further in scope and stature, its implications as limitless as those of serialism itself.

(Pollini's Boulez from 1976)