Lucidity and Pianistic Elegance from Pollini in Schoenberg and Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Beethoven: Maurizio Pollini (piano), Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.3.2017. (GD)

Schoenberg –  Three Piano Pieces. Op.11; Six Little Piano Pieces Op.19

Beethoven –   Sonata in C minor, Op.13. ‘Pathétique’; Sonata in F sharp major, Op.78; Sonata in F minor. Op.57, ‘Appassionata’

This was Pollini’s second recital in the ‘International Piano’ series at the Festival Hall. Pollini has always been receptive to ‘modern’ music, in particular Schoenberg. The composer’s younger disciple/student Theodor W Adorno, in his various essays on Schoenberg, saw Op.11, together with the ‘George Songs’ Op.15, as representing a kind of break with traditional Romantic expression whereby its expressive ‘intensification’ reaches its logical conclusion, sublating the semblance of traditional musical expression. Here Adorno finds Nietzsche’s notion the ‘becoming’ of an art-work, where the works ‘ironic play’ eventually breaks up, ‘subsumes’ its very form, to be paradigmatic. Schoenberg, for Adorno, was the first to realise this musical/philosophical challenge. For Adorno it is possible to hear shades of Brahms (one of Schoenberg’s favourite composers) for ‘depth of texture and complexity of rhythm’, so expression is there in Op.11 – actually emphasised by Pollini- but it is more what Adorno described as ‘expression without decoration’.

In fact, I remember hearing Pollini in these pieces with not so much ‘expression’ in line with Adorno’s Nietzschean notion of ‘becoming’. But having said that, everything was there in Pollini’s rendition tonight. He caught to perfection the dissonant dialectic of the lyrical ‘rising appeal’ offset by the ‘ominous ostinato’ in the second piece. The third and final piece where ‘the parody of a quick waltz’ transmogrifies into the mingled fury and elegant decorum of Pierrot Lunaire, found Pollini as lucid and mercurial as I remember him over twenty years ago.

The same remarks regarding Op.11 apply to Op.19. Although the work develops as a form of micro-compression, anticipating Schoenberg’s other student, Anton Webern. Here there is not the same sense of theme, counter-theme; the counter-theme here is registered as silence. So we don’t get the same feel of dialectical advance (in the Hegelian sense), but rather a kind of ‘Negative Dialectic’, which Adorno would develop later to encompass such wide-ranging themes as politics, culture, aesthetics and the Holocaust. There is absolutely no sense of expectation and fulfilment, as in the traditional sonata narrative. Pollini made the six markings of these ‘Little Pieces’, integrate with a whole which is only tentative, so that each performance can sound different, the emphasis being more on discontinuity rather than continuity, as totally understood/played by Pollini. The marking in No.4 (‘Brisk, but light’) was nimble and light as could be imagined. The (‘Very slow’) of No.3 was not taken as ‘slow’ in the Wagner Parsifal sense, but had a kind of inner pulse/drive. Pollini was particularly successful in No.2, with its staccato thirds, and the fragmented and disjointed No.4, with its fff outburst. No.3 with its sonorous bass seeming to pull the music back towards tonality, but rendered futile, was well registered by Pollini’s sense of pianistic contrast, and abrupt change. Overall this was playing of the highest order, capturing the idiom, otherness, and dialectical complexity of this still amazing music.

Beethoven’s piano sonatas have always been central to Pollini’s repertoire. critics and musicians tend to either love or hate Pollini’s Beethoven, a bit of a Marmite issue! I, for one, have over the years tended to appreciate his Beethoven more and more. It doesn’t have much of the powerful rhetorical intensity of say an Arrau or Gilels, or the probing insights of a Schnabel, or of the great Annie Fischer. It doesn’t linger, always a sense of forward drive and energy, with meticulously worked out clarity, although Pollini will deploy a degree of subtle rubato to emphasise a particular and powerful phrase or sequence. Needless to say, his overall style and interpretive logic are always his own. A good example of Pollini’s style was evident in his rendition of the famous ‘Pathétique’ (it is now commonly agreed that the title is Beethoven’s own). Pollini played the powerfully rhetorical Grave introduction at a swiftish tempo, never losing sight of the inherent drama. In a sense it reminded me of the way in which Toscanini, in a Beethoven symphony, used to deploy a relatively brisk tempo, thus enhancing the sense of energy and drama. Pollini played the main Allegro molto with plenty of drive and intense energy, making sure that the unexpected and dramatic reappearances of the stern opening made their full C minor effect. Throughout the Allegro there were some moments of uncertainty and blurred notes, which didn’t really distract, and had not appeared anywhere in the rest of the recital. The famous A flat major Adagio had plenty of con moto, with sharp rhythmic phrasing. And the Rondo finale, with its borrowing of a sub-theme from the first movement and a raging storm of C minor scales in the coda, were all played with compelling conviction.

The Sonata in F sharp minor, Op.78 was one of Beethoven’s favourites. This was partly to do with Beethoven’s great fondness for Thérèse von Brunswick, who he knew at the time. She greatly admired him as an artist, but not, it seems, in any sexual or romantic way. It is probably the easiest to play of all the sonatas. It has a great economy – the Adagio introduction is just four bars long; in fact the whole sonata lasts for barely 10 minutes. I liked the way in which Pollini blended the brief introduction with the swift but lyrical main Allegro. The quite eloquent and lyrical economy of the Allegro brings to mind the beautiful design and economy of Mozart’s earlier sonatas. With its exemplary proportion in terms of perfect balance between motion and melody, subtle harmonic changes and shifts and a wonderful sense contrasting tonal registers, undoubtedly the other reason Beethoven was so happy with this delightful work. Pollini brought all of this out with his wonderful sense of lucidity and pianistic elegance. The closing movement looks back to the classical period, but it is also the nearest Beethoven came to musical humour, with the repetition of the quaver and semi-quaver figure working against each other in a playful way, with a complimentary recurring rhythm, keeping the music so alive. Pollini encompassed all this with a wonderful sense of negotiating contrasting rhythms and a lightness, but also sharpness, of touch.

The ‘Appassionata’ is second only to the ‘Moonlight’ in popularity. It was again another of Beethoven’s favourites. He finished it in 1806, coming in the aftermath of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and the first stages of work on the Fifth Symphony and the ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartets, Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ style now firmly established. Pollini was particularly compelling in capturing the first movement’s powerfully integrated contrasts between the thunderous and the lyrical. Pollini’s tempi throughout the first movement corresponded with Beethoven’s Allegro assai, and he did not slow down for the most powerfully dramatic moments, as some of the ‘greatest’ pianist do. Pollini was fully aware of the way in which the actual sonorities are worked out – the spacing, two octaves apart, of the hands in the opening statement, for example, or the darkly sonorous voicing of the eloquent second theme. Towards the coda the music floats, its last measure, being one of the few places where Beethoven demands an extreme ppp, beautifully intoned by Pollini. Pollini played the second movement’s contrast between a simple chorale in D-flat major and a set of four variations of contrasting tonalities, designed to provide repose between the agitation of the first movement and third movement, with great sensitivity and insight. And the finale itself with its torrent of semiquavers, undercut by sudden sforzato accents and abruptly disruptive rests. suggesting a process of tragic failure, were powerfully projected in line with Donald Tovey’s very Freudian, ‘rushing deathwards’ to the final page.

As an encore Pollini played the Andante and Presto from Beethoven’s Op.126 Bagatelles. Pollini’s sharp rhythms, especially in the Presto, were stunning.

Geoff Diggines

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