Sunday 6 March 2016

Pollini - Schoenberg, Schumann, and Chopin, 2 March 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19
Schumann – Allegro in B minor, op.8
Schumann – Fantasie in C major, op.17
Chopin – Barcarolle, op.60
Chopin – Two Nocturnes, op.55
Chopin – Polonaise-Fantaisie, op.61
Chopin – Scherzo in C-sharp minor, op.39

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Maurizio Pollini remains to my mind our greatest living pianist. He has always had his detractors, although their line of attack appears to have turned 180 degrees. Once they denigrated his awe-inspiring technique, as if that were somehow a bad thing. They accused him also of a literalism that could not have been further from the truth. Now, it seems, they accuse him of lacking technique. (Whether ‘they’ are the same people is not always clear; in some cases, they certainly are, and seem to object more to his wholly admirable political principles than anything else, using such manufactured objections as ballast.)

Why do I mention this here? Partly because it would be vain to claim that Pollini’s technical command is quite so unassailable as it once was. However, as those of us preferring to listen rather than to scorn have also observed, there has come with a relative increases in fallibility a still more evident humanity to be heard. It was always there, of course, and it is far more than the banality of saying that the occasional wrong note makes a musician seem human. But if anything, many of his interpretations have deepened, liberated even by current circumstances. There was, for instance, to these undeniable ‘Pollini works’ often something different, intriguing, even experimental, when compared with his celebrated recordings. I remember as a teenager, my sixth-form music teacher handing me a newspaper cutting of an interview with him. (I am afraid I cannot remember from which newspaper.) He spoke of every few years returning to Beethoven and re-learning the sonatas from scratch, just as he would re-read Goethe or Schiller. This, I think, is what we hear here, where some excite themselves by crowing over a few smudged passages.

As a previously unannounced curtain-raiser, in tribute to Boulez, whose death will surely hang over the whole of 2016 and beyond, we heard Schoenberg’s op.19 Pieces. (I once, as a student, heard Pollini play the set as one of several encores at this very venue.) Only the first sounded slightly diffident. The others were sharply characterised, proud in their Brahmsian inheritance, equally proud in their suspended (yet not entirely so) tonality, or, if we like, their Wagnerian inheritance. Stockhausen perhaps stood not so very far away either. But Debussy also came to mind; at times, the instrument seemed almost hammer-less. And then, came the ruptures, undeniably hammered; Adorno would surely have nodded sagely.

Schumann followed. The B minor Allegro came first. It would be difficult to imagine a performance – and a performance this most certainly was – with a stronger sense of purpose, and yet which remained imbued with a poetic impulse rooted not only in Schumann’s own Romanticism but also in so much of musical history since. Here and in the ensuing C major Fantasie, Debussy again proved an intriguing presence, perhaps at first surprising but, upon consideration and, more important, upon experience, satisfying and compelling. This was a Romanticism that opened up vistas, for those with ears to hear, rather than retreated into an imaginary ‘golden age’. Multiply that a few times, mix in a considerably greater willingness to beguile us with telling rubato, and you might have an idea of the Fantasie in performance. Pollini’s celebrated recording is perhaps a better initial guide to the work, and will surely remain a prime recommendation to listeners of all varieties. Here, however, the pianist, or better the musical thinker, seemed willing to test his preconceived ideas and ours. A frankly Chopinesque – at least at times – second movement, especially interesting given the second half, soothed and ravaged the instrument in equal measure. Standing on either side, like panels in a triptych, the first and third movements were played perhaps more ‘straight’, but nevertheless with great variegation. Yes, the conclusion to the second movement was a rollercoaster ride, but he and we made it; it was exciting in a more profound sense than one would ever hear from a ‘mere’ virtuoso, because this was a performance driven by the intellect, at least as powerful as ever.

Chopin has perhaps always been Pollini’s greatest love. If there were times during the Schumann works when I could imagine those preferring more ‘traditional’ approaches looking askance, it would be difficult to conceive of anyone feeling bewildered here. The Barcarolle sounded, well, more barcarolle-like than I could recall – which is saying something, Swaying waters drew one in to listen, despite, indeed partly because, one knew that such waters would prove dangerous. Such, after all, is the definition of siren voices. Voices led us, tempted us, to the very depths. Suddenly, and yet no suddenly, moonlight guided our way through the pair of Nocturnes, op.55. The onward tread of the F minor piece developed its own impetus, not exactly wayward, but perhaps more varied than one once might have heard; melodic delights led us once again to look to the silvery skies. So they did also in its E-flat major sibling, whose voice-leading reminded us just how complex Chopin’s music can be, whilst retaining an essential melodic impulse. Dialectics have always been Pollini’s thing, whether in Chopin, Beethoven, or Nono.

Even those not generally attuned to ‘later Pollini’ would surely have adored the performance of the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Structural command was absolute, melodic and harmonic progress as one; here, one sensed, was a reminiscence of the pianist’s earlier, equally misunderstood, self. The C-sharp minor Scherzo might at times have been edited or elaborated by Liszt, such was the battle and yet ultimate rejoicing with the instrument, in which musical and technical discoveries could not, should not be separated. It sounded as exploratory as anything in the recital, testament surely to the Boulez to whom Pollini had initially paid homage. Both encores, the G minor Ballade and (!) the D-flat Nocturne, op.27 no.2, sounded at least as liberated; as so often in Pollini’s recitals, the end of the published programme proved only the end of the beginning. I have been continuing to think long after having left the hall; indeed, in that sense, the recital has yet to draw to a close.