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The Golden Age, Part Two

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/12/2002 -  
Frederic Chopin: Fantasy in F Minor; Two Nocturnes, Op. 55; Barcarolle in F-sharp Major; Berceuse in D-flat major; Scherzo # 3; 24 Preludes
Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Scharwenka, Rosenthal, Hofmann, Godowsky, Paderewski. These are the pianists who, according to the very helpful program notes, introduced today’s pieces of Chopin to the Carnegie Hall audience in those halcyon fin-de-siecle days. The legend has been built around these giants and there is nobody left to refute it. Those who lived long enough for electrical recordings to capture their art were but shadows of their former selves, the most poignant being the alcoholic Hofmann, considered by many the greatest Chopin interpreter of them all. But even these titans had to compete with the previous generation and suffer comparison to Liszt, Thalberg and Anton Rubinstein. It is ever thus: the artists of the past are imbued with a glowing aura impregnable to modern arrows. But now, instead of a sepia toned rotogravure, we in the 21st century, with our flickering internet magazines, have the opportunity to listen live to performances of the romantic master at least as moving and profound, when Maurizio Pollini comes to town.

For those who have never heard the Signor in person, a word or two of description. Pollini is all business, striding out to his instrument with that Groucho Marx walk, the head arriving before the rest of the body. Applause is superfluous to him, even intrusive. His opening F Minor fantasy was stunningly declarative, the action non-stop and relentless. Only after this piece, so that the late-comers could be seated, did this driven genius even pause for breath. His Chopin is decidedly rough and tumble, sinewy, the sleeves rolled up and shorn of their ruffled cuff, the aesthete without the effete. Technically, this man is superhuman: he hits each and every key in its exact physical center, no matter what the tempo (and his are at the Mach II level). Although the finger dexterity is flawless and spectacular, the poetic side is also well represented. Mr. Pollini is a Northern Italian and his rendition of the F-sharp Minor barcarolle put me in mind of those tranquil Venetian evenings with the gondolas bobbing up and down in the canals. Perhaps the most impressive reading in this first half of the program (a tough call) was the motherly berceuse, so contrasting to his otherwise masculine assortment.

If ever there were a convincing case for thinking of the preludes as one continuous and unified work, it was this shimmering version. Pausing only a measured beat between each, Pollini dazzled and electrified by turns (by contrast, earlier this season Ivan Moravec, another worthy interpreter, paused for a considerable length of time between each pair of the 24). The G Major was especially impressive: the left hand steely in its traversal of presto runs while the right meandered in a totally relaxed and lyrical manner. The more tender moments, the “raindrops” in particular, were sensitively, even exquisitely, played and set the stage for even more unbelievable pyrotechnics in the fast passages. When those final low tones resounded through the hall, we were all aware that this was a performance for the ages, as golden as any from the fabled past. And all of this was accomplished without rubato!

The most revolutionary display was saved for the encore section. The famous G Minor Ballade was powerfully intoned exactly as it is written on the printed page. This might not sound so radical until one realizes that, at least since the mid-1800’s, the melody has always been played with slight slowings down and speedings up, the classic Chopin elasticity of time. But Pollini will have none of it and the phrasing of this celestial music was spine-tingling in its rhythmic regularity, even when the penultimate melodic phrase, seemingly impossible to enunciate clearly without some interpretive latitude, was sung out so stoutheartedly by this keyboard necromancer. I literally fell back in my seat in stunned silence.

At any given point in a Pollini recital, the thought occurs to one that it is not conceivable that a mere human can play this way for such an extended period of time. And then the corollary idea dawns: it is just as mind-boggling that any human could compose such wonders. For two and a half surprisingly fleeting hours this day at Carnegie Hall, the miracles of human achievement were on display for all to savor. Someday, when we are all dead and gone, some daring critic may favorably compare a contemporary pianist to Maurizio Pollini.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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