An Uneven London Recital from Maurizio Pollini

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Schumann, Chopin: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.3.2016. (CC)

Schoenberg, Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19

Schumann, Allegro in B minor, Op. 8; Fantaisie in C, Op 17

Chopin, Barcarolle, Op. 60; Two Nocturnes, Op. 55; Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61; Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39

This was a rescheduled concert: due to illness, Pollini cancelled his recital of a week and a day earlier and space was found for him here. The concert still almost sold out. In addition, there was an extra piece, an “in memoriam Pierre Boulez”: Schoenberg’s Op. 19 set of piano pieces. Presumably this was chosen because the last of this set is in itself an in memoriam from Schoenberg to Mahler (the three notes of the first chord of Schoenberg’s Op. 19/6 are a vertical version of the same three notes that appear, in melodic form, at the opening of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: F sharp – A natural – B natural). True, some of us might have hoped for some Boulez (perhaps not a full sonata – Pollini is inextricably linked with Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata – but maybe a Notation or two? or even Incises?). But once that disappointment was set aside, what emerged was actually the highlight of the recital: a perfectly chiselled set of miniatures, from the surprising warmth of the first to the intermittently playful and through to that great final Mahler tribute, which here included silences that positively cracked with electricity. Incidentally, the entire concert was dedicated to Boulez, not just the Schoenberg.

Both Schumann and Chopin are core Pollini territory. As the first half went on, there was a palpable sense of sadness from this reviewer. My first encounter with Pollini was in the early 1980s, in Manchester when Pollini was on tour with the English Chamber Orchestra. The programme consisted of Mozart Concertos, Nos. 14 and 17, with the 34th Symphony sandwiched in between. The concertos were directed from the keyboard, the symphony conducted by Pollini. The point in context here is that my first Pollini solo recital was in the early-mid eighties at the Festival Hall and started with the Schumann Allegro, Op. 8. Here it was again, but this time more rigorous (in linear terms), and unfortunately not as accurate. There were some lovely textures, certainly, and Pollini’s technique was equal to the final stretches, but there was an uncertain edge overall that was to come into full flower in the Fantaisie that followed.

Pollini has put down a classic version of the Fantaisie for DG that seems to bookmark the piece as perfect for his blend of intellectual power, impeccable technique and attunement to Schumann’s style. That was then, of course, and Pollini’s take, in his twilight years, is rather different. Opening with huge chords and with a core of steely determination, the first panel included passages given in a very literal manner. Turbulent but unhurried, it led to a central panel (Durchaus energisch) that was far from rhythmically stable, contained passages that erred into what can only be described as “safe” delivery and concluded with a splashy, highly approximate end that can only be described as unsettling in the extreme. The final panel was beautifully judged, Pollini’s sound gorgeous and, finally, organic growth resulted in a fine sense of inevitability. But the primary emotion, as we headed out for the interval, was sadness. No doubting Pollini’s musical intellect, still as scalpel-sharp as ever; but the delivery was, frankly, wanting.

Pollini’s life-long fascinating with Chopin has given delight and insight to thousands over the decades; yet the Barcarolle that opened the second half seemed to suffer from the same unsettled feel of the Schumann; the move to the climax was stilted, not natural. If the sound towards the close was nicely burnished, this was cold comfort.  The two Op. 55 Nocturnes fared better, the first unfolding nicely, its final chords perfectly judged; the second containing beautiful trills. But it was only really with the Polonaise-Fantaisie that we encountered the Pollini of old. One of Chopin’s most elusive scores, this found Pollini able to trace a trajectory that at once made perfect emotional sense without compromising any of the score’s mystery; even emphasising it in some textures that seemed, here, to be deliberately undifferentiated. The climax towered magnificently.

The Third Scherzo was more of a mixed beast; moments of beauty (sculpted octaves, wonderful contrastive descents against perfectly-placed chords) against hints of the more unstable side of this particular evening. There were only two encores, the First Ballade (some fudging at times here) and the D flat Nocturne, Op. 27/2, which included some wondrous filigree. But I wonder if the standing ovation was actually warranted on this occasion? Certainly, as I left, my heart was heavy.

Colin Clarke