Chopin – Preludes, op.28
Debussy – Préludes, Book I
Rankings are absurd, but if anyone were to have doubted the identity of our greatest living pianist, this recital should have made the answer clear. The programme was wonderful: supremely challenging, of course, but one which one might have expected some other of our more thoughtful pianists to have essayed. Results were more than wonderful, the first half offering a tonal conspectus of searing drama, without a hint of didacticism, the second offering commentary and extension, sometimes readily apparent, sometimes more oblique, upon the first, whilst always remaining true to itself.
Chopin’s C major Prelude opening the recital sounded less as an opening flourish than as the latest instalment in a recital that might have been going on for hours: less creatio ex nihilo, then, than being plunged in medias res. That seemed to apply equally to work and performance, between which it was in any case impossible to distinguish. From this outset, Maurizio Pollini managed to combine a scale of utterance necessary for the Grosses Festspielhaus with an intimacy that retained more than a trace of the salon (albeit without the vapidity of much of its music). The integrity of the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude would be a case in point. It sounded as if a miniature Lisztian symphonic poem: high Romanticism in the best sense. As Chopin traversed the tonal system, so he seemed to traverse an entire world of expression. The A minor Prelude, introverted, almost Schoenbergian, happened upon a new vista with the pianist’s right hand: not superseding, but a new element, the dialectical relationship between new, existing, and developing material properly unstable. Likewise the left hand’s sad melody in the B minor Prelude evoked a world we seemed both to know and yet not to know. Sentiment was certainly never to be confused with sentimentality, as the minor mode Prelude in between, that in E minor, asserted, ensuring that Chopin’s sadness was all the greater. Pollini’s razor-like clarity extended not only to musical line but also to harmonic direction. Meaningful fury, not a note wasted, characterised such different pieces as those in F-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, and F minor. The E major Prelude, bold, and public, attained its stature at least as much on account of its placing, upon what had gone before, as its undeniable individuality; much the same could be said of its C minor cousin, and how one felt the impact of Chopin’s bass there! The G minor Prelude was revealed to be as complex and as passionate as a Brahms Intermezzo. (If only Pollini were to play some of those late Brahms works!) So too was the final Prelude in D minor, a daemonic conclusion, which, despite equal temperament, testified to the very special nature of that key, whether looking back to Mozart, or forward to Berg and Schoenberg.
‘Danseuses de Delphes’ is a very different opening gambit, and so it sounded, yet it emerged, intriguingly, in its onward tread as a son of Chopin’s G minor Prelude, irresolution in more than one sense marking Debussy’s very different path. Indeterminacy was, in ‘Voiles’, raised to the status of a determining principle, although the piece was to receive a few more turnings of that dialectical screw in Pollini’s performance. Not that there was anything ‘dry’ to his performance, in which the Debussyan instrument without hammers sounded less an aspiration, more a realised delight. ‘Sons’ and ‘parfums’ alike were made musical sense of in ‘Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’; I was set to wonder what Pollini’s Scriabin or Messiaen might have to offer. (A great deal, I am sure, although I doubt, alas, that we shall now ever find out.) ‘Les Collines d’Anacapri’ was more nervously consistent than I can recall hearing, whether from Pollini or anyone else, probably less ‘Spanish’ too, at least in a touristic sense, although, on the other hand, musical connections to Ibéria announced themselves freely. ‘Des pas sur la neige’ came across after that as all the more powerful in its introverted mode of generation: ‘simple’ yet deeply radical. Ensuing turbulence in ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ highlighted both Chopinesque roots and Debussyan singularity. Kinship between ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin’ and the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude similarly registered, seemingly of its own accord. The opening of ‘La Sérénade interrompue’ might have been from a work by Bartók, albeit, if this may be imagined, a hammer-less Bartók, presaging the radical, sometimes menacing whimsy of ‘La Danse de Puck’. In between, ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ offered magical – and provocative – lack of clarity between melody and harmony. The lance that Liszt had hurled into the musical future appeared to land in the final ‘Minstrels’, the ghost of Mephisto haunting, sardonically and yet certainly not without warmth.
Three encores followed. First came the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, very much in the vein of the most furious of the Preludes, yet resolutely ‘Classical’ in direct, unbending presentation of the argument. The G minor Ballade was as fluid as the Etude was strict, the dynamism of Chopin’s form speaking just as clearly. What powerful drama, meaning emerging from within rather than being ‘applied’ from without! Finally, the Berceuse, Pollini’s performance achieving a Nono-like marriage between ‘aquatic’ invitation and steely, generative turbulence. It sounded so simple and yet so infinitely complex, ‘so alt – und war doch so neu!’ Chopin playing, indeed any musical performance, really does not get better than this.