Pollini Continues to Astound in Chopin and Debussy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chopin, Debussy: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.2.2017. (CC)

Chopin – Two Nocturnes, Op. 27; Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47; Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52; Berceuse, Op. 57; Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20

Debussy – Préludes – Book II

Almost a year ago, Maurizio Pollini gave an uneven recital here at the London’s Royal Festival Hall. On that occasion it was Schumann that shared concert space with Chopin. Here, it was Chopin who provided the first half. The two Nocturnes of Op. 27 form a strong unit; the second is one of Pollini’s favourite encores. Here, the first found Pollini’s right hand melody honeyed, in stark contrast to the Nocturne’s middle section. The second, which followed without a break, had a beautiful sense of flow. Concerns about Pollini’s technique that were held over from last year seemed to be generally groundless, excepting the odd miss; this was perfectly attuned Chopin, Pollini’s Fabbrini Steinway sounding superb.

Two Ballades followed – the third and fourth – along with the Berceuse; these took us into the last decade of Chopin’s life. Having exited the platform, applause greeted Pollini prior to the Third Ballade, which left in its wake a raft of shuffling as he launched, with no pause, into the exquisite opening of Op. 47. Pollini’s Chopin is so consistent: no unnecessary emoting, just an unfurling of line and structure along with a supreme knowledge of texture and sound. The “rocking” contrasting subject of this Ballade was nicely done with out being indulgent, a perfect example of this approach. As the music thickened in density and note-velocity one wondered if Pollini was erring on the safe side, something he is prone to in the earlier parts of recitals. The Fourth Ballade is a more advanced work than the Third, holding its secrets close to its chest in the manner of late Chopin, grist to Pollini’s mill where he revels in providing extreme clarity in this austere soundscape. The beautiful construction of Chopin’s edifice is revealed in all its natural beauty in this way; which is not to say there weren’t beautiful sounds, too (the post-climax sweet high chords, for example). Again, the odd slip hardly mattered in the slightest. The Berceuse is from the same time (the Fourth Ballade 1842/3, the Berceuse 1843). It is one of Chopin’s dreamiest and inspired compositions, and Pollini’s sweet tone and serene demeanour exuded tranquility.

The First Scherzo brought us back in time (1832) for a virtuoso close to the concert’s first panel. The perilous opening was just this side of safe, but the “lullaby” contrasts were positively hypnotic.

Late Chopin and Debussy are not a million miles removed, so Debussy’s Préludes Book II (1911-13) was the perfect stablemate. And yet if the works linked backwards in time, Pollini’s alliance with modernism also found links to later music, Debussy’s individual compositional techniques inspiring Pollini to his greatest. Immediately atmospheric, ‘Brouillards’ enabled us to find the heart of Debussy without any settling-in period. The strata of the works throughout were expertly delineated, Pollini’s tone colour variations leading the ear: ‘Brouillards’ contains perfect examples of this. Each Prélude’s character was perfectly caught, from the ringing bass of ‘La puerto del vino’ to flickering fairies (‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’, with some terrific “horn signals” perfectly and convincingly delivered).

Enigma is at the heart of Debussy Préludes II and nowhere was this more so than in ‘Bruyères’; yet there is quirkiness galore, too: a rare glimpse of Pollini humour in ‘Genéral Levine’, for example, or the hilariously clumsy ‘S. Pickwick, Esq.’ with its God Save the King bassline. The word “hilariously” rarely comes to mind with Pollini, who has always taken his music very seriously indeed, but perhaps its inclusion here is a nod towards the all-inclusiveness of his take on Debussy.

The last two Préludes made the perfect pair: the sophisticated ‘Les tierces alternées’ the perfect foil for the virtuoso ‘Feux d’artifice’. But Pollini’s “Fireworks” was more than just fireworks; this was a remarkably variegated affair, a clarion touch used for the Marseillaise quote, flitting, scampering showers of notes and glissandi that looked forward to Stockhausen, perhaps. A remarkable achievement.

Often generous to a fault with his encores, we were given three extended pieces. First, Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’, (the tenth piece from Préludes I), a lovely reading despite a low C that failed to sound and had to be re-activated. Following that, Chopin’s C sharp minor Scherzo (again, not technically perfect but full of life) and finally the Pollini standby of the First Ballade. The standing ovation, this time, was fully justified. Pollini, now 75, continues to astound.

Colin Clarke

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