Maurizio Pollini: The Stamp of Greatness

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Chopin Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.3.2015 (CC)

Schumann: Arabeske in C, Op. 18.
Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Chopin:      24 Preludes, Op. 28


Core Pollini repertoire formed the basis of this, the welcome return to London of the great Italian Maestro, Maurizio Pollini. Once known for a technique that was impeccable and awe-inspiring, the 73-year-old’s accuracy is not what it once was. But the intelligence is just as keen, leading to a sense of knowing that shines through Pollini’s playing – a sense of knowing that can be found in few other musicians.

A Schumann Concert sans orchestra some years ago at the RFH stands high in this reviewer’s memories of Pollini at his height. Everything seemed in perfect balance: musicianship, excitement, technique, structure. The all-Schumann first half of the present concert was not quite on that elevated level, but was nevertheless memorable. Even before he started playing, Pollini’s entrance betrayed a fragility of physicality that is now rather pronounced; balancing this, Pollini is now more apt to smile. The opening of Schumann’s Arabeske seemed to speak of a new introspection; more expected was Pollini’s revelling in Schumann’s twists and turns.

Kreisleriana is a tower of the Romantic repertoire. In purely technical terms, its opening is a gantlet thrown down by the composer to the intrepid interpreter. Pollini had no problems, but even more impressive was his rich sound on his trademark Fabbrini Steinway. Again, Schumann’s stark juxtapositions were exquisitely done. Harnessed to this was an eagerness to highlight the piece’s proximity to Liszt in some of its writing; and to underline the Handelian grandeur at other times. This might not have been the most technically accurate reading ever, but it carried the stamp of greatness.

It was Chopin that first brought Pollini to the public forum, and his interpretation of Op. 28 has matured over the years. His two commercial recordings are separated by some 40 years, with the earlier one much reissued. Pollini managed to achieve the near-impossible feat of respecting the individuality of each individual Prelude within the canvas of the piece itself while giving the listener a sense of inevitability as Time’s Arrow carves its way from the impetuous C major through to the final, mighty D minor. Unafraid of harsh accents yet capable of great tenderness, Pollini gave us a reading to treasure.  The enthusiastic audience, up and down like jack-in-the-boxes at the close of the concert as standing ovation gave way time and time again to encore after encore, justly realised the special nature of the occasion.

If there is one criticism I have, it is that Pollini has a habit of wheeling out the same small group of encores. From a pianist whose repertoire reached from pre-Bach through to the likes of Manzoni and Nono, this seems unnecessarily restrictive. Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Study is often there (as it was here), as is the D flat Nocturne, Op. 27/2. Often there is a larger work, too, most often the G minor Ballade; here replaced by the C sharp minor Scherzo. The stamina is still there, it seems.

Colin Clarke