Salzburg Festival 2011 – Masterful Beethoven from Pollini

AustriaAustria Beethoven: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 24.8.2011 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Piano Sonata no.24 in F-sharp major, op.78
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’

Having already been treated to a series of five London recitals this year from Maurizio Pollini, it was a further blessing to hear a second all-Beethoven recital, with entirely different repertoire from that performed in London (the sacred ground of the final three sonatas). Here we heard four middle-period sonatas: two of the most celebrated, each prefaced by two-movement works that can sometimes be overlooked, but which most certainly should not be.

Pollini’s fabled clarity was in evidence from the opening bars of op.54, along with a Haydnesque relish in thematic working. (We can only regret, and stand bemused by, the absence of Haydn from Pollini’s repertoire, given his record in Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.) Syncopations emerged as natural, or rather inevitable, not mere ‘features’ as they can sound in lesser hands; the same could be said of other melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic developments. (One can hardly call any such aspects embellishments with respect to either composer or pianist.) The second movement exuded a sense of Beethovenian joy: one could almost hear the pealing of bells, both physical and metaphysical. Struggle too, of course, was necessary. This moto perpetuo – well, almost – movement sounded in Pollini’s hands both inexorable and charming.

The Waldstein Sonata could then be heard as a necessary precursor to the F major sonata. Rhythmic momentum – and that includes harmonic rhythm – was absolutely crucial to the triumph of the first movement, never more so than in the ‘take off’ following the second subject: in the exposition, its repeat, and still more so in the recapitulation. The pianist’s crystalline beauty of touch might be taken for granted, given such dramatic imperatives, but should not be. The Introduzione presented the mystery of development in various senses: almost creatio ex nihilo, except of course even the most rudimentary thematic material in Beethoven could never be described as nothing. One could only marvel at the nobility of musical utterance that emerged, and then become absorbed in the formation – not for nothing does that word include the word ‘form’ – of the subject of the following rondo. The magic of its first statement never palls, or rather it will never pall in the hands of a musician such as Pollini. C major, the ‘simplest’ of all keys, especially on the piano, sounded once again pristine, unsullied. The strength of left-hand scalic passages and right-hand trills could doubtless have been savoured in its own right, but was never mere decoration here. Pollini left us in no doubt of his understanding of the meaning Beethoven invests in such devices, and indeed in the simplest of diatonic harmonies and in deviations therefrom – even when, arguably particularly when, that meaning cannot be expressed in words. The coda coruscated yet also beguiled with its breathtaking chiaroscuro.

Deceptive simplicity of another, yet related, kind was announced in the first movement of the F-sharp major sonata. Pollini’s warmth of tone – never believe those who dismiss him as ‘cold’ – provided a sense of virgin harmonic territory, for this is indeed a tonality rare in every sense. This was heightened by a poise, both pianist’s and composer’s, that one can hardly refrain from terming Mozartian. And yet, the second movement of this wonderful work clearly looked forward to Schumann, another composer in whose music Pollini has long excelled. Faschingschwank aus Wien seemed almost to be quoted, harmonically and melodically, except of course that it is the other way around. This movement emerged utterly winningly, almost as a Romantic character piece.

It was interesting after such Romantic explorations to hear the opening of the Appassionata stated with Bachian gravity, though the thematic working could only have been Beethoven’s. I could imagine that some of the exposition might have sounded understated to some, but the harder one listened, the subtler were the ways in which Pollini’s skill in voicing and Beethoven’s genius revealed themselves. That ability to draw in the listener – at least when he realises and acts upon the realisation that listening is hard work – is truly the mark of a great musician, whether a performer such as Pollini or a composer such as his great friend, the late Luigi Nono. What might have sounded ‘abstract’ was the necessary precondition, or so it sounded, for Beethovenian torrents truly to pour forth, something showier pianists and their fans seem unwilling, perhaps even unable, to appreciate. And so it continued throughout the piece, ‘musical’ and ‘dramatic’ virtues in persistent and generative dialectic with each other, Beethoven’s musical line all the while unbroken. The slow movement presented Beethoven’s variation form not only with extraordinary clarity, but again with necessity. Every diminution, every syncopation, every counter-melody, sounded as if it could not be otherwise. For that, we owed thanks not only to Pollini’s control of line but also to the perfection of pianistic touch that permitted such control. Technique, as Sir Peter Pears once observed, is – or at least should be – the liberation of the imagination. (I shall not name names on this occasion, but we all know pianists for whom it is nothing of the sort.) And throughout, there shone through the sheer sublimity of Beethoven’s theme. The transition to the finale managed both to surprise and to express inevitability, whereupon we heard not only a great Beethoven pianist but a great Chopin pianist too. Defiant and yet hopeful, these torrents were both like and unlike those of the Revolutionary Study; they certainly marked the climax not only of the work but of the recital as a whole, ever enveloped in tragic inevitability. In a sense it is difficult to say what Pollini ‘did’: somehow, he seemed ‘simply’ – though of course there is no ‘simply’ about it – to channel Beethoven’s music and its meaning. This was not non-interpretation after the manner Stravinsky affected to desire, but the truest interpretation of all.

Mark Berry