Two Pollini Recitals with an Extraordinary “Appassionata”

United StatesUnited States Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven: Maurizio Pollini (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 21.4.2013 and 5.5.2013 (DA)

Chopin: Prélude in C Sharp Minor, Op.45
Ballade No.2 in F Major, Op.38
Ballade No.3 in A Flat Major, Op.47
Four Mazurkas, Op.33
Scherzo in C Sharp Minor, Op.39
Debussy: Préludes: Book I
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas: No.8 in C Minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’
No.21 in C Major, Op.53 ‘Waldstein’
No.22 in F Major, Op.54; No.23 in F Minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’

Maurizio Pollini tends to provoke two reactions from those who hear him. On the one hand there are those who cannot connect with his performances, labeling them cold, unemotional, or distant, believing those adjectives to be negative. On the other hand there are those who see the opposite, reveling in exactly the things his detractors cavil about, or more rarely denying the terms of the argument altogether.

Essentially the debate revolves around the interconnected ideas of the pianist as heir to Liszt and the piano recital as something to make you swoon—that should convince through stylish virtuosity. Pollini has no truck with that. His pianism, like the conducting of Pierre Boulez, is radically un-Romantic, even anti-Romantic. For decades, unsurprisingly, he has therefore been seen as a merchant of pure technique. That caricature has always hidden something deeper, however, and in his advancing years, as his fingers become less accurate than they once were, his already indomitable artistic courage seems only to become more audible. The piano itself—a Steinway modified by Fabbrini in this case—is treated as a machine for intellectual ends, in the knowledge that brain and heart must be connected for the fullest of musical experiences. This is not playing to experience idly, to let drift over you. You, the listener, have to lean into it.

In these two Carnegie Hall concerts there were strange sounds, oddities even, as Pollini embraced the potential for color in the metallic timbre of his Fabbrini. Yet there was also playing that went far beyond the edge of his ability to control, playing that became even braver precisely at the most difficult of moments. Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ sonata, the highlight of the four hours of music under review here, received one of the most shockingly destructive performances of the composer’s music that I have yet heard.

The first concert was rather beige compared to the fires kindled in the second, all-Beethoven afternoon. Chopin took up the first half, with works taken solely from the 1839–1841 period. The C sharp minor Prélude had ample sentiment without becoming sentimental, and in its harmonic mood and foggy textures sounded like a Nocturne, or even one the Debussy Préludes to come. Pollini’s fingers were rather groggy in the F major Ballade, but the careening drive of its tragic arc, taken dangerously quickly, made you forget that notes really ought to be in the correct places at all. Dignity in tragedy passed over into the later, A flat Ballade, which took its cumulative power from rhythmic security. There was integrity, too, in the four Mazurkas of Op.39, and here the phrasing was more forgiving, particularly in the long, almost dainty final piece. Yet there was nothing forgiving about the C sharp minor Scherzo, as even its dappled slow sections were quickly dismissed in a flash of cruelly clean double octaves.

The twelve pieces of the first book of Debussy’s Préludes followed, and they sounded much fresher than the Chopin. These miniature portraits have no connecting material and are not intended as a cycle, but the first book works well enough in a single sitting (certainly far more convincingly than the second book). Pollini was never going to underplay the dissonances of ‘Danseuses de Delphes’ and ‘Les collines d’Anacapri’, but here they were delivered with surprising tenderness. Breezy colors rather than fuggy haze characterized ‘Voiles’, while the evening of ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ was a threatening one, regardless of how sweet it smells. ‘Le sérénade interrompue’ was less interrupted than impossible from the beginning, and if the Fabbrini seemed rather underpowered for ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, Pollini’s voicing was so clear in enunciating harmonic progression that it didn’t matter.

If you were expecting clarity from Pollini’s Beethoven, you would have been disturbed. He began with the earliest of four sonatas, the ‘Pathétique’. Urgency and sorrow combined in the dramatic introduction, yet its musical destiny seemed so inevitable as to be matter-of-fact. Pollini’s tempo for the Allegro was certainly di molto e con brio, but seemed almost nonchalant, and the whole movement was conceived in a great sweeping line. What was oddest was the amount of impressionistic pedaling and almost Schumannesque coloring Pollini brought, even if the onward drive was resolutely Beethovenian. The slow movement too was challenging, with subtle voicing but awash in sustaining pedal, bestowed with a funny kind of grace. Here, though, one quickly saw that Pollini envisioned the sonata as a coherent whole, the longest of visions continuing into a mechanical, merciless finale.

The washy colors returned in a ‘Waldstein’ of ingenious formal realization, in which the opening tremolos were part of the structure, a motto that returned periodically, changed and changing. Swatches of color again surprised in a luminous soundscape that nevertheless had the strongest imaginable structural force, climaxing in a brutal coda. The slow movement was treated, rightly, entirely as a transition or introduction, as shimmering tremolos returned for a finale that united detail in architecture. This was perhaps the strangest ‘Waldstein’ I have heard, one in which color was form—and it wasn’t convincing.

The sonatas came in order now, with Op.53 followed by the tiny Op.54 and then Op.57. In Op.54, hints of Mozartean delicacy characterized the opening movement minuet’s first subject, savagely juxtaposed with the crashing octaves of the second subject. And if you thought the ‘Waldstein’ was odd nothing prepared you for the second movement here, sounding like Debussy with structural formality as notes spread like liquid. The palette Pollini deployed was far more varied than anything he had actually found in the Préludes a fortnight before, and at a risky tempo too.

There was nothing peculiar about the ‘Appassionata’ that concluded the two concerts though. It began with an extraordinary intensity, driven by process rather than intimating anything foreboding. Every note had structural import, every phrase subjugated to larger goals in a frenzy of aggression again united to that Fabbrini’s unique palette. At the climax of the first movement’s development section cascading runs did battle with the same motto theme as dominates the Fifth Symphony, thumped out metallically as if on an anvil. (The politics of this sonata, if Pollini sees any, might be fascinating.) The drama didn’t stop there either, as Beethoven’s arresting harmonic tension played out with ruthless clarity. When it mattered, as in the coda, not a note was out of place. The slow movement was taken attacca, Pollini emphasizing the unity of this sonata’s three tableaux in his massive blocks of notes. Phrasing was again forced, as if inhuman, but it nonetheless remained affecting. With a ferocious bridge chord, we returned to rage and fury, heightened this time at a pace to set the world alight. There was no redemption here, no solace at all, for even bars that in other hands seem to balm were cold comfort indeed. There was, in the end, just an irresistible drag towards the inescapable end. This was Pollini at his very, very greatest, and at times beyond it.

David Allen