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Left-Handed Compliment

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/07/2001 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas # 23 & 24
Frederic Chopin: Four Ballades

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

The mature piano sonatas of Beethoven fall into two categories. One type consists of small flights of poetic fancy born of the improvisatory tradition, less developed in form and more gently reminiscent of a single romantic thought. The second group contains pieces traditional in form but revolutionary in content. These are the mighty sonatas, broader in scope and more powerful in definition than any music of the past. The two sonatas that the master wrote for the Brunsvicks frere et souer illustrate the dichotomy perfectly. The Op. 78 is lyrical and feminine, fixated on a lovely episode and designed to relatively easily master its fingering, while the ”Appassionata” is fully drawn, masculine, gigantic in emotional size and fiendishly difficult to pull off (the irony is that if there were actually an object of Beethoven’s passion here, it was certainly Therese, a candidate for the model of the “immortal beloved”, and not Franz!). Juxtaposing these two works in the first half of such an intellectual recital as that of Maurizio Pollini yesterday at Carnegie Hall spoke volumes about the totality of the composer’s titanic 32 sonatas, in many ways the unhyperbolic cornerstone of Western music for the last 200 years.

The recital was vintage Pollini. Emphasizing the structure of the works on display, this international treasure of a musical archaeologist forswore the cheaply emotive in favor of a much deeper exploration of the roots and inner constructions of his chosen subjects. The 24th Sonata is rarely performed (although Carnegie was inaugurated in 1891, this work was not heard there until Rachmaninoff played it in 1930) and deceptively “easy”. Like the keyboard works of Mozart, what seems to be a less daunting exercise can be extremely hard to project, the poesy dwelling just below the surface and requiring the delicate excavator’s touch. Pollini skirts the emotional pitfalls by revealing instead the rich creative landscape, almost as if we were reading Beethoven’s sketchbooks rather than listening to the finished and published product.

I first heard this amazing artist play the 23rd about a dozen years ago in San Francisco (and, because of the pronounced echoes at Davies, I got to hear it twice). That performance was much more of a show of bravura, Pollini reacting at that time to his perhaps understandable but still undeserved reputation of being cold and unemotional. He has put that battle behind him now, however, and has returned to his own aesthetic roots, concentrating on revealing to us how the composer would have thought out the sonata (I was going to say “how the composer would have performed the sonata”, but there is considerable evidence that many of the keyboard lions of the past resorted to unhealthy levels of schmaltz in their own concert interpretations). There are but a handful of current pianists who have the ability to emphasize this fascinating aspect of musical construction: Charles Rosen in his prime was such an artist and there is a fellow here in town named Robert Taub who is proficient in this direct translation of the thoughts of the creator to the ears of the audience, but neither of these gentle men could ever even come close to the level of technical proficiency that is achieved by Pollini. Only Murray Perahia comes to mind as an able competitor in this particular arcane way of musical interpretation.

The revelation this day was Pollini’s extraordinary emphasis of the left hand. It is indeed in these middle period sonatas that Beethoven frees this appendage to become its own musical creature. Prior to these works the left hand worked in concert with the right but primarily in the subservient role of the harmonist (the “handmaiden of the melody”, Mozart once wrote). In the ”Appassionata”, the left hand becomes its own composer, free to roam the length of the keyboard and to intone not only strong melody but also imposing emotional underlinings. The music is not so much antiphonal (although there are such passages in the third movement) as bipolar. In many moments in the careeningly intense first movement there appear to be two different performers at work, each over an emotional top leading to the very edge of delusional behavior (hence the appellation of Beethoven’s publisher which has stuck down through the decades). Pollini unleashed this Frankenstein’s monster of a sinister nature and allowed it to wreak havoc on the musical landscape. This performance was not only revelatory; it approached, in its intensity, a truly frightening level of interpersonal communication. The rap that this man is unemotional is just simply misplaced; he is rather supra-emotional. If the emotions are part of the creative process, then they are exposed as yet another set of load-bearing walls in the giant edifice of the sonata in question.

Of course, revealing to us that Beethoven was a master constructionist is not exactly earthshaking. But when the focus of this edifying lecture becomes Chopin, then the insight is much more controversial. The beauty of the melodies in these individual piano pieces of Chopin is so delicious that is has become conventional wisdom to conclude that he was not much of an intellectual composer; the stereotype of the swooning salon denizen who thrilled with divine but momentary inspiration has firmly taken root in the musical-historical imagination. Only such a gifted (and brave) thinker as Pollini would be willing to dig below the bejeweled surface to traverse the less apparently beautiful but ultimately more satisfying infrastructure of the extremely rich Ballades, going so far as to almost totally subsume the right hand melody of the F minor for the greater good of exposing the gnarled support system of the left. The trade-off is that there is less dramatic tension, but to experience that, one need only listen to a hundred other pianists. The Ballades as a set were first performed at Carnegie by a Pollini prototype: the eminently intellectual composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni; yesterday’s performance was a fittingly similar approach (I base my fantasies about the performance style of Busoni on that of his apt pupil Egon Petri).

All of this esotericism was secondary, however, to the main show on the stage. Pollini is still able to wow his audience while teaching them valuable lessons. He consistently impresses with his unbelievable technique and left us all wanting more after five encores in his best “I can also play like Horowitz” manner. In the film “A Trail on the Water”, Pollini remarks that he treats each of his performances as an “estudio” (a learning experience). Those of us lucky enough to join him in this education come away much the better for the effort.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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