Pollini Plays Chopin and Liszt

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Chopin, Liszt:  Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.3.2012 (CC)

Fantasy in F minor, Op. 4
Two Nocturnes, Op. 62
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op. 61
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20.

Nuages gris, S199
Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S208
La lugubre gondola, S200 (version 1)
R.W. – Venezia, S201.
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178.

It was with the music of Chopin that Maurizio Pollini first made his international mark, and here, celebrating his 70th birthday, he returned  to that composer, juxtaposing a selection of Chopin’s works with the Liszt B minor Sonata (heard, as is his wont, preceded by a clutch of late works). Interestingly, it was the second part of the recital that held the real gold of the evening.

Chopin’s F minor Fantasy gave rise to suspicions that Pollini’s technique may be fading fast; and yet he was still able to convey the idea of the piece as a vast tone-poem, somehow squeezed into a mere twelve minutes. There was a relentless aspect to Pollini’s reading that had this listener speculating about what he might do with (or to) the Op. 62 Nocturnes which followed. Actually, the first (B major) was blessed with exquisitely balanced lines and gorgeous trills; it was the second (E major) that was problematic. While Pollini projected an incredibly rarified atmosphere in its latter stages, its beginning was notably heavy handed.

The elusive Polonaise-Fantaisie started before the applause had a chance to peter out. This was a performance of bold strokes and impeccably timed build-ups. Against this, the First Scherzo stood out as the first piece of the evening that held any pretensions at all towards virtuosity, and indeed held the first real fire so far. But I have heard Pollini play this piece better live (again at the Festival Hall). The Polish folk tune that dominates the middle section lacked any real affection: what we got were glimpses of Pollini’s greatness, not that greatness itself.

Not so the second half. The group of late Liszt was as unsettling as can be imagined. Pollini seemed to turn the opening of Nuages gris (1881), the most famous of the late works here, into a mirror-distortion of the opening of Wagner’s Tristan. Hopelessness was enshrined in sound for Unstern! before the black waves of La lugubre gondola (1882) led to the Wagnerian distortions of R.W. – Venezia (1883). The B minor Sonata was presented with miraculous concentration and not a hint of virtuosity for its own sake. The opening’s octaves began like the perfect extension of the late Liszt we had just heard. Pollini’s technique was by now restored, and none of Liszt’s demands seemed to stretch him. Pollini seemed intent on telling a black tale though in a reading that was touched with genius. The usual conciliatory contrasts were eschewed in a reading that was exhausting to listen to but at the same time seemed to sum up all of the strengths of Pollini at his best.

The resultant standing ovation was as unsurprising as it was deserved. Three encores: the second, the C minor Etude, Op. 10/12, the so-called “Revolutionary”, was no surprise (it is a Pollini favourite), while the final Berceuse was gorgeously gentle. The surprise was the first encore, the F minor Transcendental Study (hardly Pollini’s usual territory), stunningly delivered. Dare we hope for a recording of the cycle?

Colin Clarke