Pollini Demonstrates his Virtuosity, Assuredness and Assertiveness

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chopin, Debussy: Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London, 8.2.2014 (GPu)

Chopin: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45;
Ballade No.2 in F, Op. 38;
Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47;
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op, 35
Debussy: Preludes, Book 1


The late cultural and literary critic Edward W Said (himself a most accomplished amateur pianist) spoke of the enormous and astonishing virtuosity, ‘assuredness’ and ‘assertiveness’ of Pollini’s playing particularly in Chopin. Said goes on to rate Pollini as unquestionably one of the very top pianists playing today; also as a pianist very much of today, our late 20th/early 21st century era. I think this is quite an accurate summation of Pollini’s overall qualities.  Said’s  notion of Pollini as a pianist for our time comes from the general consensus that his playing tends to be more objective, and closer to the composer’s score. There is an element of truth here, though from the isolated Prelude in C sharp minor, with its subtle modulations and harmonic shifts, there was plenty of  fire and restrained emotion which  augured well for a most compelling recital. Pollini did not sectionalise the piece, playing it as a superb line of coherence which only relaxed, very slightly, for the magical and luminous cadenza. The second Ballade (dedicated to Schumann) was superbly contoured, Pollini again giving us, as it were, the whole picture. The opening simple folk-like theme was accurately voiced with the right degree of forward movement. The almost violent contrast of the Presto con fuoco  in A minor was a superb demonstration of Pollini’s ‘assertive’ sense of dramatic contrast. The second theme of the development in D minor from which the shimmering coda is developed was wonderfully integrated with the structure of the whole work. Pollini played the third Ballade with the same pianistic finesse as he played the second. The third Ballade is not so much premised on contrasts resembling more a constellation of ‘shifting registers’ from discreet contrapuntal suggestions to broadly lyrical sequences with different and superbly timed clusters of luminescence and tenderness. Again Pollini gave us a complete view of the work without ever missing its seemingly infinite array of modulation and harmonic contrasts. Throughout this piece, and indeed the whole recital, Pollini’s pedal work was an object lesson in tonal balance and sonority.

 Pollini played the Op. 35 Sonata, with its famous ‘Marcia funebre’ with tremendous attack and energy. From the imposing opening, with its three – note motif in the bass to the desperate and dramatic first subject, to the second subject with its intervals of major and minor right through to the taut and acerbic development section and emphatic D major coda, Pollini again proved himself to be a master of contrast. After the similarly dramatic Scherzo with ‘radical’ tonal shifts ending in the remote key of G flat, the Marcia funebre itself had a noble, even stoical quality in Pollini’s hands, a kind of monumentality we used to associate with Klemperer’s conducting. Pollini’s attention to structural coherence certainly paid off in this famous funeral march in B flat minor, with the beautiful contrasts of the ‘Lento’ interlude in D flat. We were made aware, more than is usual, of the relationships and inter-relationships with the first movement and scherzo. The extraordinary finale, which can surprise even today, was executed with a total awareness of the strangeness of this music. Although brief, it requires a kind of ‘sotto voce’ legato of perpetual motion. Its odd tonal juxtapositions and dissonances prefigure the later world of atonality. Needless to say Pollini met the enormous pianistic challenges with absolute control and mastery.

 Overall this was Chopin playing of the highest order. Occasionally I would have welcomed more of the reflection Maria-João Pires brings to this music, but really playing of Pollini’s excellence makes comparisons ‘odious’.

 It is not clear how much Debussy was influenced by the cultural/political climate of France (and indeed Europe) at the time his first book of Preludes was published in 1910. Much has been written of the French cultural will to develop its own nationalistic culture. and especially the will to supersede German cultural influence.  The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the slaughter of the Paris Commune still had a traumatic resonance. And this spirit of revival, especially in French music, was still very strong. Debussy, whether consciously, or not, turned out to be a key figure in this quest for renewed French cultural identity.  We know that Debussy, probably more  for aesthetic reasons, wanted to break the spell of German composers like Beethoven and Brahms, and develop a compositional approach based more on the historical French musical tradition going back to Rameau and Couperin. Although Debussy would not have anticipated it, his main body of piano music, including the Préludes, turned out to be much more than mere revivalist music; it is now seen as one of the turning points in Western ‘classical’ music. Pollini gave us a traversal of the first book which fully recognised the staggering and contrasted quality of this unique music.

 Right from the opening ‘Dancers of Delphi’ with all its allusions to Greek Classical Antiquity and its calm sensuality, Pollini took us completely into Debussy’s world of the spiritual and mysterious with that slight hint of the profane so beloved by the composer. As with the previous Chopin Pollini’s pedal control and sonorous range was exemplary, as were his dazzling octaves, arpeggios and left hand passage work. Pollini was particularly well attuned to Debussy’s sense of ambiguity. This was evident in the second prelude ‘Veils’, or is it ‘Sails’? This is also the case in the third prelude ‘The wind in the plain’ with Debussy’s use of vague and undirected whole-tone scales.

 The fourth prelude, ‘The sounds of fragrances swirl through the evening air’, comes from Baudelaire’s ‘Harmonie du soir’ , Pollini caught just the right atmosphere here, perfectly registering Debussy’s subtle manipulation of a limited number of intervals, to evoke a ‘hermetically sealed’ atmosphere. I could go on, but, having given a general picture of Pollini’s approach, I will confine myself to some of the preludes I found particularly outstanding. The sixth prelude ‘Footsteps in the snow’ was notable  for Pollini’s sense of drama and rhythmic control. I am thinking in particular of the halting ostinato rhythm, intoning a frozen landscape which recalls the melancholy land/soundscapes of his earlier opera Pelleas et Melisande. In prelude eight ‘The girl with the flaxen hair’, inspired by a pre-Raphelite damsel from a poem by Leconte de Lisle, and resembling a kind antique minuet, also found in ‘Bruyeres’ in the second book, Pollini captured well the simple melody with a slight hint of rubato to inflect the dance like tone of the easy flowing rhythms.

 In prelude ten, ‘The submerged Cathedral’, Pollini maintained a sonorous glow, sustaining the mysterious aura of the piece. The prelude recalls the legend of the city of Ys that sank beneath the waves but  whose cathedral spires can still be glimpsed on certain days through the mists. As one commentator aptly remarked, ‘this is an example of Debussy’s fin-de-siècle love of a bygone age that survives only in the form of ruin’, an image which no doubt would have appealed to allegorist and poet of Parisian culture Walter Benjamin. Pollini captured the intonation of ghostly bells and quasi Gothic organ incantations not by highlighting them in any programmatic sense, but creating a sustained glow where they emerged in a way which corresponds to their haunting intonation. The magical charm of the penultimate prelude ‘Puck’s danse’, with its jazz-like off-beat rhythms, and the concluding ‘Minstrels’ intoning the carnivalesque sounds of a street band the composer saw in Eastbourne, were delivered with consummate attention to exactitude and quirky humour.

 Pollini was quite generous with his choice of encores, both by Chopin.  First came the Étude Op.10, no.12, in C minor,  the so called ‘Revolutionary’ in a typically rhythmically charged rendition. Then, the First Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, in which Pollini gave the same attention to detail and dramatic/lyrical contrast as in the previously played two Ballades.

 With frequent concerts of Debussy’s music, both here, and in Europe and the US, and a number of highly praised recordings, Pollini has made a strong impression. As I hope I have made clear, Pollini in not so much an ‘impressionist’ here; his renditions are more sharply etched  and keenly characterised. Here and there I would have welcomed the poetic restraint of French pianists like Thibaudet, Aimard, and the superb, vintage Marcel Meyer. But Pollini  must be ranked at  the very top of the list in this repertoire. I can’t wait for him to play in concert and record the second book of Debussy’s ever fascinating Préludes.

 Geoff Diggines.