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After the Garden, the Bouquet

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/26/2008 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, opus 31, No. 2 “The Tempest” – Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, opus 57 “Appassionata”
Robert Schumann: Fantasy in C Major, opus 17
Frederic Chopin: Four Mazurkas, opus 33 – Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, opus 31

Maurizio Pollini (Pianist)

Maurizio Pollini (© Mathias Bothor/DG)

Augmenting our memories of the most world-shattering events of our time, from assassinations to revolutions, some of us remember the first time we heard Maurizio Pollini play the piano. For myself, it was a typhoon-swept evening in northern Thailand, where a friend put on a recording of Pollini playing Chopin Etudes, and not even the driving force of the rain banging on the tin roof could detract from the driving force of the pianist, the laser-sharp notes, the pinpoint accuracy not only of the keys but the emotions as well.

That afternoon was such a revelation that other recordings by Pollini have seemed sometimes bland, admired for perfection, the inhuman accuracy never cold but not quite communicative. I wouldn’t miss any of Pollini any time, for his playing, while never idiosyncratic, has a singular idealism. But, quoting Maugham, “Perfection can never be perfect because perfection is dull.”

Now that Pollini is celebrating his 40th year on the concert stage – not just Carnegie Hall, but auditoriums around the world – he has come very very close to achieving not only that virtuosic emotional perfection, but a communication as well. It is still not quite human, it lacks the Jovian frivolity of Horowitz, the pure poetry of Rubinstein, the classical elegance of Edwin Fischer (to take three examples), but his works were never Rodin sculptures: they moved, they changed, they were iridescent, they almost offered surprises.

I must begin whit his performance of Schumann’s C Major Fantasy, which was as close to human dialectic as I have ever heard. The work is played several times each New York season, and is always satisfying. When Pollini, sitting low on the stool, concentrated (except for a few little jumps when necessary) played the first movement, the music was wonderful and perfect, but with an unintended flash, I imagined a musical Symposium. Schumann as Plato, Pollini as spokesman, Socrates. But most important, each note the words, the dialogue, the arguments of dazzling intelligence and logic, not with the answers but with questions and suppositions.

(Reading this over, it sounds like a parody of a bad 19th Century reviewer, but we shall let it pass, since it was true.)

Most important was that in the final movement, Pollini achieved that incredible balance of color and tempo, where nothing seemed out of place, yet everything seemed spontaneous at one time. The work ended, as it should have, with a quiet benediction to a divine sermon.

Onto the program. Specifically the two Beethoven Sturm und Drang sonatas. From the beginning, “The Tempest” offered disclosures. Most important – as in all Pollini’s music – not a single bar was wasted. The repeat of the short “Tempest” exposition was not a sonata “tradition” but had different coloration, more meditation than the original. That so difficult recitative in the middle was never a mere interlude, but had the fluidity of a bel canto aria.

Then there was something which no other pianist can accomplish. The Beethoven pauses were never show biz breathlessness (vide Lang Lang and associates), but seemed to have their own language, were part of the preceding phrases. The slow movement here was heavenly, the finale had a pianistic vibrato taken somehow without benefit of pedal (which was used sparingly).

The “Appassionata” was swift (like Serkin) but never out of control. Control, in fact, was what makes this sonata so tense. Pollini’s crescendos on the opening trills (not found in my Urtext edition) increased the drama. The second movement was not heavy, but the notes were played most tenderly. As for the finale, here was again the Pollini magic. That command to play “as swiftly as possible” was taken literally, but not a single note was without a transparency, and even in the most whirlwind phrases, a sense of architecture.

The four Chopin Mazurkas were delightful. But the first, in G-sharp Minor, was akin to Liszt’s late work written without measures: it simply had no discernable tempo at all. And that was fine, since these mazurkas are hardly danceable at their most literal. They are ever more mysterious concert pieces. The Second Scherzo again had the Pollini trademark of never letting a single measure go without meaning. Every phrase seemed a reflection of measures which came before or which would proceed. The most limpid legato was simply another side of the more bumptious rhythmical.

My guest here called the Pollini “controlled incandescence”, which would make no sense to a post-Newtonian physicist. But this was not physics: it was music at its most elevated, a garden which each seed had its own organic blossoming, and where it seemed at its best that the Pollini should be (in Shakespeare’s words) “the onlie true begetter” of the Steinway.

But there was far more. After the “garden”, Pollini offered a bouquet of four Chopin encores. One polonaise, one etude, one nocturne and one complete ballad (the First). A labor of love, obviously, from a man for whom playing can be sometimes spontaneous but always on the road to the Platonic Idea.

Harry Rolnick



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