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Magister Ludi

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/20/2000 -  
Claude Debussy: Etudes, Books I & II
Pierre Boulez: Sonata # 2

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

One of the most delicious targets for the humor of Claude Debussy was the standard piano lesson. In his Children’s Corner Suite there is a piece entitled Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, an hilarious depiction of a child rebelling against the interminably boring theoretical work which used to be the bane of all pianists’ existence (out of favor now, it was the Hanon exercises of its day). The short attention span of the performer is gratified with flights of creative fancy which turn the routine into wonderful poetry. Debussy was also sensitive to the adult learner and I, who came to the ke yboard only as a teen, was appreciative that works like his Etudes and Bartok’s Mikrokosmos existed to take the sting out of rudimentary discipline The two books of the Debussy are able to be judged on two distinct levels and it is a pleasure to report that that most accomplished of all living pianists, Maurizio Pollini, provided the Carnegie Hall audience with two differing object lessons on Monday night. Technically, one cannot say enough about this amazing practitioner. Each note is always struck directly in its physical center with never even a hint of unwanted overtones. This type of athletic exhibition of cross-handed technique and finger stretching is as artful as that of a matador and as demanding as any breathtaking feat of a gymnast. On the purely musical level, Signor Pollini brings us to an even higher level of appreciation and the movement of the doigts is forgotten in a gossamer world where the piano actually has no hammers any longer, but is rather plucked by the fingers o f the angels. This idiosyncratic man with his Groucho Marx walk and self-effacing manner is New York’s treasure for the next year and a half as he anchors the "perspectives" series for this venerable old hall. I spotted him at the LSO concert the other night, just another eager fan there to hear Boulez perform Mahler (perhaps he was less disappointed than I).

Pollini has "owned" the Boulez Sonata # 2 for many years since his groundbreaking recording from the ‘70’s. This is a piece of incredibly high energy and it takes a Svengali to pull it off. The Debussy was a good warm-up as there is much cross-handedness required to even just sound off the paroxysms of elongated tone clusters that punctuate this last of Boulez’ works which remain basically within the mainstream of Western Classical music. In the Sonata, the composer is still concerned with development of musical ideas and there is even a rather standard format of four movements, complete with Adagio. The work is strangely Beethovenian for a 23-year-old young Turk who would soon venture down a much more radical path. In fact a case can be made for the phenomenon that Boulez got more outrageous as he grew older, perhaps accounting for his lonely stance of the present day, an old soldier still fighting the anti-formalist wars of the 1950’s. In any case, this performance was superb and was followed, uncharacteristically, by three encores of Debussy, Pollini basking in the glow of an appreciative crowd in a manner that I have not observed before. There is always a distance between artists like Boulez and Pollini and the public, but at least this evening the gap was considerably foreshortened.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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