The Southbank’s “Pollini Project” ends in classic style

Chopin, Debussy, Boulez: Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall London, 28.6.11 (GDn)

Chopin : Preludes Op.28

Debussy : Preludes, Book 1, Nos. 2,3,4,6,7,10

Boulez : Piano Sonata No.2

The Southbank’s “Pollini Project” culminated on Tuesday in classic style, with the venerable pianist giving a recital that perfectly balanced the core repertoire for which he is celebrated, with a good dose of the acerbic Modernism for which he is equally well known.

The first half was devoted to Chopin’s Op.28 Preludes, and it would be hard to imagine a better performance. Physically, Pollini looks frail these days, and his first entrance onto the Festival Hall stage seemed cautious and unsteady. But as soon as he sat down at the piano all that changed. Chopin is the ideal repertoire for Pollini, it shows off both the conviction of his interpretive approach and the intimacy that he is able to imbue in any performance space, even one as large (and packed) as the Festival Hall. He takes liberties with the music, although any pianist who doesn’t pull Chopin around is missing a trick. His rubato and his dynamics go right to the extremes. Considering how famous most of these Preludes are, it is impressive how unpredictable Pollini makes them. Rubato is never employed simply to articulate the phrasing, and everything about the interpretations seems designed to say something new with the music. But Pollini maintains a lightness of touch that prevents anything from sounding pedantic or forced. He brings out the Romantic heart of this music, but without ever resorting to sentimentality or cliché.

Debussy’s Preludes also benefited from Pollini’s disciplined yet emotive approach, but they didn’t shine in quite the same way as the Chopin. Things occasionally seemed a little too deliberate here, and Pollini’s determination to make a statement with every phrase prevented some of the movements from taking off.

But Pollini’s playing is all about the bigger picture, and like the Chopin, the Debussy was impressively distinctive and coherent. Both composers benefit from the attentions of a pianist who can place all the notes in a meaningful context. Unlike many younger pianists, Pollini doesn’t attempt to play every note with precision and clarity. Instead, they are all subsumed into his presentation of the work as a whole. His playing is precise at the structural level, yet often variable in its detail.

That’s not how we expect to hear the music of the post-war avant garde, so the Boulez Sonata that closed the programme was given a very interesting reading. In the opening pages, it seemed that Pollini lacked the rhythmic surety to project the music’s precise proportions. But it soon became clear this interpretation was going to share all the qualities of the Chopin and Debussy that preceded it. Boulez claims to have been attempting to break down the structural certainties of the sonata format with this work, but Pollini seemed intent on reinstating them. The first movement, for example, builds up to a huge climax, which is followed by a wistful, or at least quiet, coda. Pollini made these contrasting final sections the focus of the movement, and ensured that everything up to this point moved towards it. And despite initial appearances, this was a precise reading. Perhaps it seemed wayward because Pollini was putting his own mark on the music. All too often, when this music is played at all, performers feel obliged to simply recreate what they find on the page, the myriad performance instructions giving apparent license to hand over all artistic authority to the composer. Not so Pollini; whatever music he sits down to, you know you are always going to get a real interpretation.

Gavin Dixon