Wednesday 2 April 2014

Pollini - Beethoven, 2 April 2014

Royal Festival Hall 

Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, ‘The Tempest’
Piano Sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Piano Sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

This would have been an ambitious programme, technically but still more so musically, for any pianist. For a pianist in his seventies, the latter issue would almost inevitably loom larger, and Maurizio Pollini is no longer quite so technically infallible as he once was – almost terrifyingly so. Yet there remain ample compensations, born of a lifetime’s experience of some of the greatest music in the piano literature, and it would be a pedantry lying far beyond that of Beckmesser which dwelled on the occasional slip of the fingers. One of the fascinations of Pollini’s recent performances has been the extent to which he has become more willing to take musical risks, to penetrate still deeper into the essence and challenges posed by what might otherwise have become all-too-familiar repertoire. Here we heard outstanding performances of the Tempest and Waldstein Sonatas, and an exploration of the Hammerklavier for which ‘outstanding’ seems too lame a description.

The first movement of the Tempest is unusual even in Beethoven’s output: a formidable challenge to analysts and performers alike. (Ideally, one should of course be both.) Carl Dahlhaus made a fascinating claim when he wrote: ‘Beethoven’s movement does not have the slightest claim to a musical idea worthy of the name. What his work is based on is not a thematic – much less melodic – “inspiration” so much as a formal concept: the arpeggiated triad … The opening, seemingly an introduction, can be viewed in retrospect as an exposition.’ Dahlhaus proceeded provocatively to contrast this with another ‘extreme of music’, being ‘the melodic “inspiration”,’ to exemplify which, he quoted a cavatina from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, ‘limited to a few measures and with the form functioning merely as an arrangement’. Beethoven’s extreme, then, ‘would seem to be the almost disembodied formal process emerging from a void’. Such was what we heard from Pollini, yet with an added complexity that thematic ‘inspiration’ yet did seem to be present. In this fast and furious performance, we seemed to look – or rather to hear – forward to the Appassionata, and also to experience moments of what, to borrow from the future in the guise of Parsifal, we might think of as time becoming space. Yet, this being Beethoven – and Pollini’s Beethoven at that – time nevertheless remained time, and spent itself: Beethovenian goal-orientation remained, endured, consumed. The recitative-like passages bore the signs of a drama that went beyond Gluck, whilst the transitions exhibited an almost Wagnerian magic. Even a startling wrong note served to confirm humanity rather than to disrupt.

The Adagio could therefore proceed from what we had heard, very much part of the same work: a banal point, perhaps, yet how often does it not sound as such? The state of sublimity attained was ecstatic and meaningful when heard in this context. Sometimes it would be understated, yet stated it most definitely was – and emerged all the more powerfully for the tenderness of utterance. Ghosts of Haydn made one wish Pollini had devoted himself also to performance of that composer’s music; yet one cannot have everything, and it would be intolerably greedy to ask for more in this case. Rêverie and turbulence co-existed, interacted: the music was and became the Romantic essence of becoming (Werden) as opposed to ‘mere’ being (Sein). The finale might superficially seem, at least at its opening, to suggest Mendelssohn; here there was no doubt that this was Beethoven through and through. Perpetual motion was sounded, certainly, but it was developmental motion such as only Beethoven – and the finest of his interpreters – could offer.

In context, the first movement of the Waldstein seemed to develop from what we had just heard, especially from the first and third movements. The tonality was all its own though – and what very particular use Beethoven makes of ‘white’ C major! Again, development was all, the exposition repeat sounding almost as if a first development, the concision of the development section proper, thereby rendered all the more striking. Struggle was yet to come, though, and what struggle, the climax perfectly judged, leaving the second subject in the home key to offer release that satisfied and yet suggested yearning for more. More was what we experienced, of course, in an Introduzione that was dignified, songful, almost – and yet not quite – Wagnerian in its sublimity. (I make no apologies for persistent recourse to the ‘sublime’. With Beethoven, little else will do, at least when his music is performed as it deserves.) The opening of the finale was perfectly judged, so much so that one came close to realising that it had fallen upon us only after the event, so deftly was the transition handled. C major unfolded as if – and yet only, as if – this were the music of heaven: Beethoven remains here far too Promethean to be assumed. The coda: my word! It was as if everything we had heard already we heard again, albeit sped up, more urgent, more pressing. And indeed, in an understanding more important than the literal, that is just what we heard. The tonic was justified in every sense.

Pollini launched into the Hammerklavier Sonata as if it were the easiest thing in the world, and yet very soon, it was made clear that it was anything but. I have no idea as to the number of crotchets played per minute, but I should not have been surprised to learn that Pollini actually fulfilled Beethoven’s impossible metronome marking. Maybe he did not; it certainly does not matter in the slightest. The fury did though, and so did the flexibility shown thereafter: not of the Barenboim variety, but why should it be? Both of these great musicians have something to say in this music, indeed something that demands both to be said to be heard. The scherzo again offered as fine a sense of following on, of development, as I can recall having heard. In its utterly developmental nature, it sounded unusually close to Schoenberg. The fury with which Beethoven seems to wish to go beyond, even to destroy, the piano, and his consequent need of the instrument all the more to accomplish his musical means, were portrayed with searing drama.

The gravity of utterance afforded the third movement was perhaps the most extraordinary thing heard so far. There was sentiment aplenty, never to be confused with sentimentality, but entirely at the service of a Schoenbergian Idea: grand, never grandiloquent. Indeed, there seemed to be so much music here that Schoenberg seemed almost faint-hearted by comparison. The radicalism – and it is great – of the Bagatelles occurred to me, both distilled and expanded into a form and its delineation in performance that were nothing short of incredible. Bach speaks as God; Beethoven seems both to approach Him and somehow to have gone beyond. For there was in work and performance a definite – should that also be ‘indefinite’, for dialectics are all-pervasive here? – sense of limits, of frontiers, at least as much so as in the total serialist essays of the 1950s. Elaboration was never merely ornamental; indeed, it was serialism that once again came to mind in its endless development. And yet, tonality returned to do battle: kinship was revealed with earlier slow movements, not least that of the Tempest we had heard earlier.

The opening of the finale – likewise the reappearances of that material – sounded as if from the world of late Liszt, yet it clearly contained within itself, ready to burst, the developmental seeds of something else. How those seeds forced themselves into the light was an achievement still more humanist than it was technical. The tempo again sounded impossible; it probably was. And yet how much more meaningful was the struggle that ensued than if we had been in the realm of the ‘possible’; that applies as much to work as to performance. Trills – were they on the side of the angels, or the Devil? – struck the fear of God into those who listened. Moments in which neo-Gluckian simplicity reasserted itself were rendered all the more shocking – and necessary. This, then, was revealed as impossible music, in an impossible performance.

Equally necessary were the encores. I had no doubt that we should hear something from the Bagatelles and should happily have offered a wager on which ones. A pity I did not, for op.126 nos 3 and 4 were duly to be heard. The heightened state of the former – surely beyond anything narcotics could muster – was sung as if in a single breath, a Webernesque sigh; the latter revisited the impossible dialectics of the Hammerklavier.