Friday, 20 March 2015

Pollini - Schumann and Chopin, 17 March 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Arabeske, op.18
Schumann – Kreisleriana, op.16
Chopin – Preludes, op.28

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Pollini joining the protests against Berlusconi

Apologies for having taken so long to write something about this, the most recent visit of the world’s – and thus, presumably the universe’s – greatest living pianist to London. I must also apologise for the generalised nature and, most likely, the superficiality of the following remarks. Not having had chance to write something earlier, much detail has now escaped my memory. ‘Never apologise, never explain’: I know, but anyway…

Schumann and Chopin have always been central to Pollini’s repertoire, and have almost unfailingly showed him at his greatest. This recital was no exception. I have never been clear why we do not hear the C major Arabeske more often in concert. Pollini showed why we should. Its ‘poetic’ form – somehow, Schumann at his best always manages to inform his music with ‘literary’ sensibility, without in any sense forsaking its ‘musical’ nature – was revealed both as straightforward, readily comprehensible, and yet as rewarding of the most careful of playing and listening. Counterpoint was clear, yet not too clear: the pianistic depth of Schumann’s re-reading of Bach was understood on its own terms, not those of ‘authenticity’, and of course on our terms too; we have heard Schoenberg and Stockhausen, not least from Pollini. Subtle rubato drew one in, and held one there. This is a musician as incapable of self-regard as, say, Sviatoslav Richter; whether one agrees with an interpretation or not, or indeed whether one finds fault with a performance or not, there can be no case of denying the pianist’s commitment to the music. Here, what, in lesser hands – it was one of the relatively few Schumann solo works I hubristically dared to play in public – might sound sectional, proved cumulative and, above all, poetically and structurally satisfying. ‘Satisfaction’ might sound a faint compliment; it is not. The conclusion, ‘Zum Schluss’, was rapt as only the non-narcissistic can be. It seemed over in a trice, yet its infinitely touching musical poetry remained.

Kreisleriana followed. Florestan and Eusebius inevitably came to mind, indeed came into well-nigh physical reality. Not the least of Pollini’s skill here was to ensure that we never forgot that they were two characters, or complexes of character, but of one mind and body. ‘Hoffmannesque’ may be all to easy a term for Schumann’s reimagination of E.T.A.’s novel, or perhaps better, Hoffmann’s spirit, for this is no ‘setting’ as such; nevertheless, the proximity and indeed extension of temperament were striking. Soulful, innig slow movements were no mere oases; they were necessitated by, for instance, the furious tonal alternations of the work as a whole or the kinetic energy of the fifth movement. Romantic tonality and its structural implications sounded as if they were being thoroughly explored for the first time; they were not, of course, but the unfolding of the tonal drama brought the shock of the new to music that for some has become too comfortable.

The Chopin Preludes are a Pollini speciality, of course. I have reviewed several performances on here since I began writing. In a sense, I have little to add to what I have written before, especially at this distance. But this performance was every bit the equal, and in no sense a routine reproduction. The ability to hear the work, irrespective of the composer’s ‘intention’, as an entirety, as an exploration of a tonal universe both informed by Bach and yet going beyond him, is in my rare experience rarer than one might expect. Pollini showed how that is no mere conceptual framing, but a living, animating musico-dramatic imperative. The dignity of the ‘smaller’ pieces was just as apparent as the world-conquering larger pieces. (It is all relative, of course.) Everything had its place, yet was never confined to it; this is no bureaucratic mind. Yet, in the exploratory, almost experimental temperament Pollini has always divined in his – and our – beloved Chopin, one sensed, even dared perhaps to understand, the affinity with the post-war avant garde, with those successors to the Romantics, who wished to push musical parameters still further, indeed once again to establish quite how far they might be pushed. Boulez seemed as close as Bach. And yes, the melting beauty of the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, not remotely sentimental, its sentiment intact and yet reaching outward, had to be heard to be believed. The three encores – the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, the D-flat major Nocturne, op.27 no.2, and a decidedly Lisztian-sounding C-sharp minor Scherzo – deserve essays in themselves, not least in context. Next time…