Maurizio Pollini Wanes but Does it Matter?

 United StatesUnited States Schumann, Chopin: Maurizio Pollini (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York, 19.10.2014 (SSM)

Robert Schumann Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18 (1838-1839)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838)
Frederic Chopin  Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45 (1841)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 (1837)
Berceuse in D -flat Major, Op. 57 (1844)
Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (1842-1843)

Chopin Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2
Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39
Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, “Revolutionary”
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23


 The seasonal reappearances of some of our greatest pianists in the Stern/Perelman auditorium at Carnegie Hall are always an event. The audience knows that whoever is on stage has something special to offer. Many solo musicians say they’ve played at Carnegie Hall, but few really  ̶̶  or rarely  ̶  have. The cognoscenti know to ask, “Stern, Zankel or Weill?” There is a considerable difference in size between Weill’s 270 seats, Zankel’s 600 and Carnegie Hall’s 2800. Pollini may have waited 8 years after he won the Warsaw International Chopin Competition to feel confident enough to accept offers to play publicly; but when he did, he went straight to the top, performing in Carnegie’s main hall.

 The key phrases that pepper so many Pollini reviews can be found in Alan Hughes’ 1968 NY Times‘ review of that first concert at Carnegie Hall: “as swift and steely a set of fingers as any pianist today,” “beautifully if somewhat coolly played,” “clean articulation” and “long lined-melody…shaped aristocratically.” Hughes significantly closes his review with what has now become for many critics an apologia for this giant of the piano: “Does he play Beethoven? Does he play Bach? Who cares when he plays Chopin…so splendidly.”

 Almost 50 years later another critic refers briefly to an earlier performance of this same program as having missed notes, blurred passages and the absence of Pollini’s former technical brilliance. And his conclusion? “It doesn’t matter,” since Pollini has “bestowed the music of Schumann and Chopin” upon an “audience of his loyal subjects.”

 What does matter then? Pollini may be a king and the audience his loyal subjects, but what if he’s not wearing any clothes. It seems easy enough to reject young competitors who are hoping for a first prize but flub, or musicians who are applying for orchestral positions but don’t quite have what it takes. Sure, it is hard to ignore effort, but the alternative is a dangerous one: the lowering of expectations and the rise of mediocrity.

 The Arabeske that opened the program lacked a clarity of line, hindered either by the peculiarities of Pollini’s custom piano or the overuse of the sustain pedal. The conversational nature of Schumann’s music demands that the voices talk clearly to each other. Here, as in some of the other pieces, there was a peculiar clumpishness in the left hand that buried the lower voices. For the same reasons, the “zum Schluss” section that closes the work never sounded, as it should, delicate and wispy.

 Pollini, a student of the idiosyncratic Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is known for his cool classicism. Perhaps Pollini was attempting in the Kreisterleriana to broaden out his playing style, to be less cool and outward looking and, to paraphrase the second section’s heading, to be sehr innig. At moments he seemed unsure, and he certainly didn’t show the confidence and technical prowess we have come to expect from him.

 He did seem more comfortable with the Chopin works. The Prelude in C-sharp Minor sung out well but something was lost in the crescendos. The Piano Sonata No. 2 held up well too, but the Scherzo and particularly the Finale were rushed, as if the pianist wanted it to be over. The Berceuse lacked the silvery tones that were hidden beneath the sustained pedal marks that Chopin wrote for it. By this time, I was almost certain that this dull sound was due to the piano, which I noticed was rushed onto the stage and perhaps not completely adjusted. The concluding Polonaise in A-flat was workmanlike, without the bravura and jittery tension that informs the performance of a Horowitz. The speed was there but little else.

 Happily, in the final four encores Pollini gathered some kind of strength from the applause or was able to relax. There was no question here of waning technique. Two of the encores were played at Pollini’s first recital, and here he seemed at ease enough to tear through these bonbons with aplomb.

Stan Metzger

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