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The Romantic Played With Classic Perfection

New York
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
10/16/2015 -  
Hector Berlioz: Ouverture du Corsaire, Opus 21
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky: Overture-Fantasy “Romeo and Juliet”
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Opus 11

Maurizio Pollini (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Music Director/Conductor)

M. Pollini (© New York Philharmonic)

The appearance of any great artist in New York after a long spell is a cause for rejoicing. That Maurizio Pollini is appearing with the New York Philharmonic after 20 years, with two recitals in Carnegie Hall should be cause for triple exultation.

But Mr. Pollini is not a pianist who generates a festive thanks. His touch is crystalline, his balances are right, his choices are worthy of honors and respect and quiet standing ovations. As they were last night, heartfelt ovations, but no European-style stamping or hysterical calls for “Encore.”

This was hardly a negative in his performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. In fact, he and conductor Alan Gilbert had a splendid partnership, the orchestra a willing accompanist to Mr. Pollini’s mastery. Though, historically, this is decidedly Mr. Pollini’s own Everest to conquer.

The Piano Concerto was the work which garnered Mr. Pollini first prize in 1960 at the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. It was the work which dazzled Herbert von Karajan when he first heard the pianist. And in 1969, this Concerto was the debut performance with the Seiji Ozawa’s New York Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa.

So nobody in the full-house audience expected more than what they had heard before. One does not screw around with perfection. And Maurizio Pollini artistically (if not always digitally) has that perfect way of uncovering his Chopin. Perhaps we had a better chance to understand that last Sunday, with a full recital of Chopin (and Schumann), and last night’s Concerto was nothing to sneeze about. (Though the audience was in one of their coughing moods, an adjunct of our flu season.)

That long introduction was played with zest by Mr. Gilbert, and Mr. Pollini replied with a rawboned, never sentimental Allegro maestoso. The “mastery” was in the playing, not through any undue power. The first theme flowed unforced, and the rest of the movement had that same fine restrained playing. In a program devoted to music of the “romantic” period, this restraint was even welcomed. Mr. Pollini often speaks of Chopin’s “mystery”, but the Piano Concerto has few mysteries, and it was performed with literal grace.

For the second movement, Chopin was good enough to supply his own program notes: Romance , he said, should be "calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot which calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”

Mr. Pollini did not punctuate out his “thousand happy memories”. They were played with an almost Zen-like placidity, feelings more about abstract thoughts than any particular evening.

For the finale, neither Mr. Pollini nor Mr. Gilbert needed excesses. Some pianists take this Vivace to show off their skills. After six decades at the keyboard, Mr. Pollini hardly had to impress his audience, and Mr. Gilbert never had to speed up his orchestra. This was confident playing, this was a performance which gave appreciation rather than adulation or aplomb. Nor did Mr. Pollini need to give any encores. The one work said all that was needed to show his taste and his discernment.

At any rate, Mr. Gilbert offered enough pure excitement in the first half. Berlioz’ Corsaire is not his most famous overture–though the main theme, once he got to it, is one of his most gorgeous. The conductor started with a bang, came through some of the sentiment, and ended with a terrific Berlioz ending.

A friend at the concert was almost ready to walk out when noting Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but I assured her that she had never heard the piece live in New York. We are too sophisticated, too cerebral for such soap-opera pablum. And indeed, hearing it live, instead of background music, the composer’s attempt at modal music, his sense of opera, and indeed, a theme which can be conducted without icky sentiment shows that familiarity can actually breed content.

Harry Rolnick



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