Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Maurizio Pollini’s series of five Royal Festival Hall recitals, spanning music from Bach to Stockhausen, was not only a highlight of the music year for 2011; it must rank as a highlight of the century so far. If that sounds like hyperbole, then I may as well go a little further. Once into his stride, after a slightly glassy-sounding first movement to op.109, he at least matched, perhaps at times even surpassed, the identical programme he gave in London – though the latter had the signal advantage of being performed without an interval, unlike this Salzburg performance.
If Pollini’s tone in the first movement of the E major sonata took a little time to warm, there was intriguing compensation in its inscrutability. It invited, perhaps, but in a modernistic sense that posed questions and certainly offered no easy answers. The second movement truly shocked, coming close but never quite attaining dissolution. This again was Beethoven as Boulez might understand him, indeed arguably Beethoven going beyond even the latter’s Second Sonata. The finale offered nothing so banal as mere contrast, but in the dignity, the noble simplicity of its song, a dialectical negation, whose musical proliferation, not least in the extraordinary cantilena, peered at least as far into the world of developing variation and serialism as Boulez and Stockhausen. The wonders of Beethovenian variation form and sheer sublimity of those trills were rendered yet more unworldly – and yet utterly human – by the unerring rightness, both in work and performance, of the syncopation. One felt almost that the work was being composed anew, which in a sense it was, the unbroken line of Pollini’s performance testament to the most profound analytical and dramatic understanding. The conclusion brooked no response.
The opening to op.110 exhibited none of the slight distancing of that to its predecessor. Here Pollini seemed immediately at ease, almost as if this were an encore. The sublimity – sorry to repeat myself, but no other word will do – was indubitable, but there was nothing precious to the performance, the turn to the minor mode passionate, if perhaps a more mediated passion than one might encounter in earlier Beethoven. One could only marvel at the extraordinary concision, all the more so given that the performance never felt in the slightest rushed. (That, of course, is the key; impetuosity leads to garbling, not to succinctness.) Greater flexibility than Pollini might once have allowed himself was to be heard in the second movement. At one point, I even wondered whether it might prove too much of a good thing, but that was my own faint-heartedness, since the pianist knew precisely what he was doing and drew everything together with a perfection that never chilled, permitting the music’s sheer strangeness fully to register. I am not sure that I have ever heard the rare world of piano arioso, poised between song and recitative, so beautifully represented and yet so probingly interrogated as in the opening to the third movement. Vocal flowering appeared to go beyond what any mere voice might accomplish – save in the St Matthew Passion. The fugue may have opened in Bachian fashion, but it was soon very much of the nineteenth century at least, harmonic necessity assuming the lead. This was at least as much a trial as serenity, the dialectic between the two proceeding in a tonal arena that could only make sense – and then only just – in the age of the sonata.
The opening chords of op.111 were presented, indeed lived, with almost Lisztian vehemence, though it was immediately clear that this was very different music. Other ghosts of the musical future made fleeting appearances, the rumbling trills clearly prescient of Schubert’s own final piano sonata. And yet the titanic struggle, whilst obviously not something on which Beethoven holds a monopoly, could only truly have been his, the dialectical relationship between violent gesture and, again, noble simplicity rendered utterly personal. Again this was perhaps more fluid than would once have been the case with Pollini: this was very much ‘late’ or, better, ‘recent’ style. Anyone who doubts that this is music every bit as difficult as anything in Boulez or Stockhausen would have been silenced by this performance, Beethoven’s youthful fury aufgehoben (both negated and preserved). Sublimity and (deceptive) simplicity shone through the first statement of that ineffably sad theme to the second movement – despite appalling disruption from some elements in the audience. Already here, and still more in the first variation, was a revelation of near-Mozartian smiling through tears, the Classical tension between tonic major and minor receiving in this sonata a near-definitive exploration. The second variation suggested triumph of the indomitable human spirit – and I make no apology for the Romantic descriptions, to which Pollini’s and any genuine modernism stand anything but opposed. Proliferation was again the key to understanding the variations’ progress – far more than the unfortunate English-language programme note. (How could anyone really think of anything so banal as Scott Joplin here?!) And yet, I must immediately contradict myself, for there can never be a single key to understanding so complex a work and performance. The complexity – emotional as much as anything else – of what is allegedly the most straightforward of all tonalities proved another aid to understanding, similarly the contest and perhaps reconciliation between human and divine.
One might have expected Pollini to have left things there; after all, what could possibly follow op.11?. Bach, perhaps? There was, however, an alternative: encore performances, by turns rapt and vehement, of two late Bagatelles, op.126, nos 3 and 4. An audience which had coughed, shuffled, talked, rummaged in handbags, even, during the first encore, taken a photograph, may not have deserved these performances, but Beethoven did.