Austria Salzburg Festival  – Chopin and Debussy: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 17.8.2017. (MB)
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, op.55; Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60; Piano Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Debussy: Préludes, Book II
My final piano recital before leaving London was Maurizio Pollini’s Festival Hall performance of a similar programme: different Chopin, same Debussy. I have not (yet) reread my review, but offer a link, in case anyone wishes to compare. Needless to say, the London concert was excellent indeed, but this was probably better still – if good, better, best mean anything here, a big ‘if’. It is better, I think to take each concert separately, at least at first, which is certainly what I did in the Grosses Festspielhaus. At any rate, Pollini in Chopin and Debussy made for an outstanding conclusion to another memorable week in Salzburg.
There has been a great deal of uncomprehending criticism of Pollini recently, notably from many of the same people who had quite the contrary criticisms until a few years ago. Those who tediously disparaged his technique – as if superlative technique somehow precluded musicianship – now, still more tediously, pounce upon occasional slips. In both cases, not only do they miss the point; they tacitly acknowledge that their criticism, if one may call it that, concerns something else entirely. The actual reason, more often than not, is a dislike of the artist born of a longstanding history of political commitment in and through his music-making. (On that subject, see the beautiful film by Bettina Ehrhardt, Abbado/Nono/Pollini: A Trail on the Water.)
Why mention that here? Partly to provide context, which for some readers of such low journalism may be missing, but also because, to my horror, I actually wondered, during the opening Nocturne, op.55 no.1, whether recent jibes might actually have had some force after all. It proceeded uncertainly, unsettling in perhaps not the right way. There was a glimpse of the brilliance of old, but I found myself having to persuade myself that everything I heard was quite as intended. Anyone, however, can have a less than perfect start; none of us is a machine. And so, its E-flat major companion consoled still more than usual: clear-sighted, yet involved, its twists and turns not only navigated – anyone can do that, really – but navigated meaningfully. The sense of developing variation was almost, perhaps surprisingly, Schoenbergian, with a keen sense of some unspoken abyss yet beckoning. There were even some steps seemingly taken on the path towards the dissolutions of Debussy.
The Barcarolle’s opening chords unquestionably evinced the confidence of old. Indeed, its music sang almost as if this were a carefree encore. The waters glistened, glittered, not unlike those one sees and hears in the aforementioned documentary film; as in Nono’s Venice, moreover, there was no doubting their depth either. Chopin’s struggle, not entirely un-Beethovenian, was such that I could not but listen to every note. (Not, I hasten to add, that I wished to do otherwise.)
In the first movement of the Third Sonata, formal ingenuity and dramatic intensity were clearly at one, both in work and performance. The latter’s command of line was unerring: not just horizontal, but vertical too. Again, the depth of understanding was such that I was put in mind of Pollini’s Beethoven and Schoenberg. (I could really have done without applause from a segment of the audience, though; what on earth were those people thinking?) Opposing tendencies as extreme as in Beethoven or Schoenberg were to be heard in the scherzo; the method of their opposition and, to an extent, reconciliation was, rightly, entirely Chopin’s own. And, of course, the brevity is as radical as Webern’s. Lisztian portents at the opening of the slow movement swiftly saw their material corroded, even dissolved. The movement was then built up not unlike a Nocturne, melody and harmony of equal stature, indeed radically so. Chopin’s music sounded newly strange. As of course it did in the astonishing finale, in whose white heat every note yet still mattered: not in the banal sense of being heard but of meaning, even if that meaning could not be translated into words. Music and performance were necessary: which, coming very shortly after news of the attack in Barcelona, was just what we needed to hear.
The Debussy Préludes never ceased to surprise, each piece rethought, yet never for its own sake. The first was heard without hammers, but certainly not without bells. What, then, twinkled in the treble? Why ask? Do we need an object? A possible nod to such deconstruction reminded us that Debussy’s titles – ‘Brouillards’, in this case – are to be read afterwards, not beforehand, however utopian that idea. (If I use his titles now, it is only because not to do so would render writing about the pieces unnecessarily difficult; in any case, I am writing after the event.) ‘Feuilles mortes’ hovered between development and something else, not quite non-development; in its progress, or regress, lay quintessential Debussyan ambiguity. And the sound of those chords under Pollini’s fingers! ‘La puerta del Vino’ certainly banished any lingering ideas of the picture postcard. In its dark outgrowth from the bass, ‘local’ rhythmic figures took on new, quasi-autonomous meaning. Late Liszt here emerged as the father of all, in harmonies that both led somewhere and nowhere.
Fairies that not only were exquisite but also danced, ‘rapide et léger’ indeed, were our company in ‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses’. Their dance, moreover, was by no means an easy one: all the better, it seemed, darkly to seduce. ‘Bruyères’ was clearer than often, musical process to the fore, though never clinically so. Its title was definitely not the thing, but why should it (always) be? ‘General Lavine – excentric’ evinced a cakewalk brutality that chilled in the light of Charlottesville – and much else. It also, though, spoke of what we must not lose. So too did ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’, as delectable in its precise imprecision as in the unmistakeable aural glimpse of moonlight and the dances such silvery imagining might provoke.
Late Liszt again came to mind in ‘Ondine’, its harmonies undermining and expanding any aquatic or folkloric possibilities. Pollini’s way with the music was generative in the best sense: impossible quite to pin down, like the score itself. The embarrassment many of us feel when hearing our lacklustre National Anthem seemed both rewarded and itself satirised in a good-natured, yet ultimately deadly ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.’ Antique and modern, the whiteness of ‘Canope’ could – and did – sound both as deadly as Stravinsky’s and as illusory as Mozart’s. Yes, the world of the Études readily beckoned in ‘Les tierces alternées’, but there was no clear break with the more overtly ‘poetic’ Préludes either. The final chord might have come from Schoenberg’s op.19 Pieces: again, newly strange. Artifice and fire incited each other as equals in Feux d’artifice; somehow, we often tend to think of fireworks as ‘natural’, although they are anything but. Fleeting, corrosive, awe-inspiring: it was a brilliant – and brilliantly questioning – conclusion to a similarly conceived recital.