Pollini’s Profoundly Satisfying Beethoven and Schoenberg


AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (1) – Beethoven and Schoenberg: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 9.8.2015 (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, ‘The Tempest’
Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, op.11
Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.24 in F-sharp major, op.78
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’


Sometimes, I wish Maurizio Pollini would play music by Schoenberg in every recital. The composer, astonishingly, still seems to need such advocacy, at least with the general musical public, whatever that might be. But then, sometimes I wish he would play Beethoven in every recital. Or Chopin. And so on. A Pollini recital remains one of the great musical events in any concert-goer’s year; this Salzburg concert was no exception.

Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata was the opening work. If I were to be hyper-critical – and, if I am honest, find a cavil for the sake of finding a cavil – there were in the first movement a couple of occasions on which some, though not necessarily I, might have found Pollini’s tone a little dry (actually closer to the sound one sometimes hears on some of his DG recordings). But I shall waste no more time as an unconvincing Devil’s Advocate: from those extraordinary Largo opening bars to the end of the finale, this was as compelling a performance as I have heard, one that took one by the scruff of the neck and never let one go, although in no sense brutal. There is so much to be said in those opening bars, still more to be said in what comes from them, and in how that comes from them.  The endlessly — and ever-controversially — analysed first movement of Beethoven’s D minor piano sonata, Op. 31 no. 2, the so-called Tempest, may be a more apposite model here than that of the Ninth Symphony. As Carl Dahlhaus once put it, ‘By the criteria of Italo-French music, Beethoven’s movement does not have the slightest claim to a musical idea worthy of the name.’ Leaving on one side the generalisation regarding other music, we can still assent to the ‘German’ organicism of both work and performance. ‘What his work is based on,’ Dahlhaus continued, ‘is not a thematic — much less melodic — “inspiration” so much as a formal concept: the arpeggiated triad … The opening, seemingly an introduction, can be viewed in retrospect as an exposition.’ And that is how we heard it: almost an instantiation of an endless dialectical process, albeit one in which both composer and pianist intensified the complexity by necessarily yet meaningfully calling time, in more sense than one. The demands of Beethovenian sonata form are not identical with those of, say, Boulez’s serial proliferation. ‘If one extreme of music is the melodic “inspiration”, Dahlhaus went on, quoting as an example a cavatina from Les Huguenots, ‘limited to a few measures and with the form functioning merely as an arrangement, the other would seem to be the almost disembodied formal process emerging from a void.’ Indeed – and with what drama that emerged, albeit embodied rather than ‘disembodied’ in the heroism of performance. The occasional, very occasional, blurring – as so often, Pollini’s tempo was fast indeed – would doubtless be seized upon by his detractors as evidence of ‘failing technique’; they seem to want to have it both ways, elsewhere referring to elevation of ‘technique’ over ‘emotion’, as if the two might be separated. For the rest of us, it was a white-knuckle ride, all the more so, since it was of the mind as much as the body (as if the two, etc. …). The Adagio struck just the right balance between sublimity – hard to define, though one knows it when one hears it, and surely not unrelated to exquisite, apparently obvious voicing – and something more earthy. Schumann and Chopin came to mind more than once in the sonorities teased from the piano in the finale, but as an extension of Beethoven, not in opposition to him.

For there is more to be heard in such a performance, let alone such a work, than can ever be dreamed of by the Beckmessers of this world. Whatever their protests, ‘Beethoven Hero’ is far from dead. So we heard in the other two Beethoven sonatas: the Appassionata of course, but also, in more playful yet ultimately no less serious mode, the wonderful F-sharp major sonata, op.78. Again, there was ‘slow movement sublimity’, albeit ever so briefly, in the opening of the first movement; again, the main Allegro section (here with the rider, certainly observed, ma non troppo) emerged from within, both negating and ultimately sublimating the initial material. Variegated tone and the subtlest of agogic touches showed Beethoven’s wilful yet winning humour at something approaching its greatest.

Pollini’s reading of the Appassionata Sonata, and the first movement in particular, was all the more powerful for its (admittedly predictable) eschewal of ‘mere’ rhetoric. There was, quite rightly, no distinction to be made – or at least this is how it seemed – between material and its dynamic expression, whether in the score or in the concert hall. Especially noteworthy was the difference in colour – whether through touch, weighting, dynamic contrast, and/or who knows? – so powerfully, meaningfully communicated in different tonal areas and the transitions between them. Andante con moto seemed spot on for what we heard in the second movement. Variations unfolded of necessity, but also of will; there was a beating heart at, well, the heart of this performance. The finale swept all before it: a cliché, I know, but words tend to be insufficient. Alas, they are all I have, at least here. Middle-period Beethoven needs no vindication, but even for those who might think the work too ‘familiar’, it could hardly have sounded so on this occasion.

The Schoenberg performances were no less fine. Op.11 was haunted by the motivic ghost of Brahms; how could it not be? But in context, it seemed equally haunted by the ghost of Beethovenian tonal processes. D minor – that most ‘Second Viennese School’ of keys – seemed resurrected from The Tempest, flayed, suspended: all of those things and more. Schoenberg’s instantly familiar piano sound spoke, or rather sang. For both the longer pieces of op.11 and the aphoristic pieces of op.19 had something more than usually vocal to them: it was not just the voicing of lines, which again occasionally seemed to have a little Chopin to it. (I thought also of the ‘Valse de Chopin’ in Pierrot lunaire, shortly to come.) That was certainly important, but so too was the ability to understand and to communicate each piece as if in a single breath. Op.19 no.1 sounded as if a slightly extended operatic sigh – a warning, perhaps, to Dahlhaus’s (too?) ready opposition of German and ‘Italo-French’, Debussy appearing too – if not as an influence, then perhaps as a cousin. The Mahlerian bells of the closing op.19 piece sounded as if without hammers, both heavy with mourning and light with the air of another planet. Now some later Schoenberg too, please! In the meantime, though, we had – as I suspected – two exquisite Beethoven Bagatelles as encores: op.119 nos 3 and 4. Their kinship (no.3 in particular) with Schoenberg’s piano pieces has never sounded so apparent: again, as if in a single, profound breath.

Mark Berry


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