Maurizio Pollini at the Royal Festival Hall, London

Stockhausen, Schumann, Chopin: Maurizio Pollini ( piano), Royal Festival Hall. London , 25.5.2011 (GD)

Stockhausen; Klavierstücke VII and IX
: Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor Op 14 ( Concert sans Orchestre )
Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45

Barcarolle in F sharp Op. 60
Berceuse in D flat Op. 57
Ballade No 4 in F minor Op.52
Scherzo No 2 in B flat Op.31

I was particularly sorry that for health reasons,Pollini had to cancel his penultimate April concert in the ‘Pollini Project’. This deprived us of hearing Pollini playing Boulez’ fascinating Second Piano Sonata, particularly as it was to be preceded by selection of Études by that earlier French master Debussy. There are not many pianists of Pollini’s generation who would approach such complex ‘modern’ works. But Pollini has always been an advocate of new music, no matter how difficult and there are few pieces in the modern piano repertoire which are as demanding as the Boulez sonata, the Stockhausen pieces, or Klavierstücke, which he played tonight. These works are demanding for both player and listener. The two Stockhausen pieces were full of allusions to standard harmony and tonality, but often these ‘allusions’ take the form ( or ‘unform’) of traces of standard tonality, the ‘overtones’ of the conventional tonal row. Both these two pieces are meticulously coordinated in terms of structure, but this structure is registered in terms of discontinuity rather than the standard linear, progressive, tonal musical narrative, as in the sudden eruption of C sharp minor towards the end of VII, which then mutates into a constellation of notes which both repeat C sharp minor and devolve the key into mutated semblances of that tonal register. Both pieces explore a plethora of tempo formations and juxtapositions, as in IX, where such tempo changes act, not as rhetorical points of subjective release, but as the condition for ever more elliptical and prismatic sound constellations which do not necessarily point to a resolution or closure. The way in which Stockhausen deploys the semblance of a note relates, in a sense, to the same way in which writers such as Mallarme and Joyce use the figure of allegory rather than symbol in their literary formations. Needless to say Pollini was in total accord with this musical language, projecting the many complex clusters of sound with unerring accuracy – a register of pianism which achieved an almost ‘pointillistic’ precision totally in keeping with Stockhausen’s language. Pollini’s playing of the closing pppp, in high register, in XI, fully communicated the almost eerie and undecided effect, while at the same time, and paradoxically, providing the semblance of a resolution., but not quite. With playing of this quality I was left wondering whether or not Pollini has ever played the piano music of Ligeti? I would love to hear him in that composer’s Études .

Schumann’s Concert sans Orchestre ( Concerto without orchestra), his Third Piano Sonata, has a rather complex history. Originally Schumann’s Op.14 was a more extended work in five movements, with two Scherzi and an Andantino set of variations. However when the composer submitted the work for publication in 1836, his publisher thought the work too long and persuaded Schumann to omit the two Scherzi, shorten the variation movement, and compose a new finale. The naming of the work as a ‘Concerto without Orchestra’ ( in the French) was also the publisher’s suggestion as an enhanced selling ploy. The resultant three movement work was completed in the same year as Op. 14. Schumann later went on to revise the work, retaining revised versions of the movements omitted. Pollini is quite uniquivocal in his decision to play the work in its original three movement performing edition. Being convinced that Schumann would not have agreed to remove two movements of such high musical appeal unless he had been deeply convinced of what he was doing. Also, for Pollini, the omitted movements are generally unconvincing, not up to the same high quality of the three movements he plays.

For Pollini the sonata has a predominantly ‘gloomy’ character with ‘almost tragic’ undertones and tonight he emphasised this sombre and urgently dramatic aspect The opening descending five-note theme on strong left-hand octaves (‘Clara’s falling theme’) had a drive and urgency which pervaded the whole movement. The following dissonant chord, after the first fermata was extremely arresting. When one considers that in the later version of 1853 this dissonance is replaced by a consonance, Pollini”s preference for the original published 1836 version seems to be a most persuasive piece of musical judgement. Clara’ s theme also initiates and subtends the second ‘Andantino’ variation’ in its shorter original published version. The prevailing F minor mood here is interlaced with several more expressive lyrical figurations. In the final variation this more lyrical and tender mood is overshadowed by the coda’s repeated chords in the tonic minor key. Pollini played this movement in a terse manner emphasising the darker aspects which prevailed in the first movement. Occasionally I would have welcomed more lyrical contrast as I remember hearing in a performance by Annie Fischer, but Pollini is convincing in his own uncompromising way.

Liszt described the last movement ‘Presto’ as a ‘kind of toccata’ no doubt because of the rapid impetus and repitition of its initial triplet figurations. Overall it is a virtuoso piece, as would be fitting for Moscheles, the legendary pianist it was written for. Pollini absolutely relished this virtuoso element, but it was never just virtuosity for its own sake. The persistent repetiton of notes in itself gives the work, as in other Schumann works, notably the Toccata Op.7, an unsettling mood, a kind of nervous energy, despite the predominant major key aspect of the movement. This and the exhilarating coda were compellingly realised by Pollini.

The concert would have worth attending for the Chopin selection in the second half alone. More than most pianists, with the exception of Richter, Pollini realises that the ‘Romantic’, or expressive side of Chopin should always be tempered with the more classical side., remembering Chopin’s reverence for JS Bach and Mozart. The C sharp minor Prelude, as its opus number 41 would imply, is relatively late work, being nearly twice as long as his earlier Opus 24 set of Preludes. One critic recently described the piece as ‘bewitching’. Although I would not have used the term myself I can well see what he meant. With its shifting modulations it tends to hover between C sharp minor and C major, touching on other remote tonal constellations. There is almost a prismatic element here in the way an element of chromaticism is alluded to, hHence the ‘bewitching’ quality. But, in more basic terms the piece resembles an elegaic aria over a quasi ostinato figure in the mid to lower pianistic registers. Pollini, even more than Cortot, or Rubinstein brought out the amazing range of sonorities contained in this four and a half minute work’s iridescent textures and harmonies. No wonder French composers like Debussy and Ravel, and writers like Gide so admired Chopin’s late piano works especially the Barcarolle in F sharp Op.60. Ravel wrote of its ‘dazzling harmonies’., and the work’s delicate, elusive tonal/melodic shifts pre-empt Debussy. Pollini, as one would expect, delighted in the splendid vocality of the ardently ‘Italian’ cantilena just before the the closing page’s ‘enchantment’…again Ravel’s term. Similary the Berceuse (Lullaby) with its gentle ostinato in A flat, and magically transparent melodic lines was played in a wholly empathetic manner, Pollini sustaining the piano,pianissimo throughout, allowing the trance-like cradle movement of the piece its hypnotic effect. The Fourth Ballade with its half-tone shadings, three-part canon, and dramatic F minor outburst before the ghostly coda continued, and complimented the gentle but ‘haunted’ mood of the peceding Bereuse. And the Second Scherzo, with its harmonic clashes and restless waltz-like C sharp minor second theme leading to a cantabile variant and a contrasting dramatically agitated coda, rounded off the concert in a resounding and totally apt manner, Pollini relishing the difficult rhythms in the crescendo coda.

One would have thought that a piano recital of such staggering range and contrast would have been enough for the most olympian of pianists. But, amazingly, Pollini provided us with two encore’s, ending with a rousing ‘Revolutionary’ Étude, Op.10, No.12 in C minor, but including also the intricacies of pianistic finesse found in the D flat major ‘Nocturne Op. 27 No.8, with its ‘Lento sostenuto’ recitative and arioso line beneath a gentle but continuous ostinato. Here Pollini, who can effectively encompass so many simultaneous shifts and moods, reminded us that Chopin, like Mozart, could deploy the major mode to express darker themes and emotions.

Alltogether this was a very special pianistic/musical experience. I can’t wait to hear more Pollini, either in London, or in one of the European venues he mostly confines himself to now.

Geoff Diggines