Maurizio Pollini Returns to London in Fine Form

15/03/2018

Schumann, Chopin: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.3.2018. (CC)

Schumann – Arabeske in C, Op.18; Allegro in B minor, Op.8; Concert sans orchestre, Op. 14

Chopin – Two Nocturnes, Op.55; Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58

Maurizio Pollini is now 76 years young. It must be admitted that not all of his concerts in recent years have been unalloyed triumphs, by any means. However, this one came closer than most, even if not consistently, to revisiting his glory days.

The programme covered core Pollini territory. He has long been associated with both of these two composers, and his Schumann is, and has always been, glorious. The C major Arabeske brought forth, via his Fabbrini Steinway, the warmest, sweetest tone imaginable. The sense of rushing through that has blighted his playing sporadically over the last years was absent, the music instead beautifully exploratory. The final chord was gorgeously balanced.

The Allegro in B minor is hardly everyday Schumann, but Pollini has regularly played it (in fact he played it at the first London Pollini recital I heard in the early-mid 1980s). Dramatic, stormy and full of high contrast, there was huge harmonic understanding here (even if, on occasion, there was some blurring). Also present was the characteristic Pollini hum-along … but what a treat it was to hear the Concert sans orchestra, another piece close to Pollini’s heart. It actually comprises the first version, in three movements, of the Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor. The central movement is a charming set of variations on a theme by Clara Wieck, Pollini revelling in Schumann’s overlapping descending lines. The dark clouds of the first movement and crisply articulated dotted rhythms more than compensated for the odd slip; the superfast finale – it is, after all, marked Prestissimo possible – had nocturnal shadings that were always perfectly of Schumann, even when they seemed to reference Chopin. A superb performance of a wonderful piece.

Chopin, of course, is part of Pollini’s very being. There were only two offerings on the printed programme, though – or three, if you count the Nocturnes individually. The two Nocturnes of Op.55 were well contrasted, with a slight feel of remove for the first (F minor, the final triplet decorations slightly studied but with final chords that were exquisite) while the second (E flat) brought passion in its wake. The Third Sonata, with the first movement repeat included, was pure Pollini in its mastery of gesture, its contrasts and its eschewing of the playful. Yes, there were slips but how he threw himself into the Scherzo, and how beautifully he shaded the Largo. Thunder formed the underlying basis of the scowling finale.

Encores were as inevitable as the standing ovations that separated them: a wondrously unbuttoned Scherzo in C sharp minor (never one to stint on encores, Pollini); a beautiful Berceuse; and, a curious happenstance, the A minor Etude, Op.25/11. ‘Curious happenstance’ as just that morning I had listened to Pollini’s spellbinding September 1960 version on Testament (SBT1473) – the performance that had previously lain unpublished until 2011. He was stunning in 1960; in 2018 there were passages that impressed absolutely as much. Pillars of a career, one might suggest – until one thinks of the vitality of the encores at the end of the evening and realises that, yes, there is surely more to come. And for that, we must be truly grateful.

Colin Clarke

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