United Kingdom Chopin, Debussy: Maurizio Pollini (piano), Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.3.2019. (CC)
Chopin – Nocturnes, Op.62; Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44; Mazurka in C minor, Op.56/3; Berceuse in D flat, Op.57; Scherzo No.3 in C sharp minor, Op.39
Debussy – Préludes, Book 1
Pollini’s London concerts have long been cherished events, particularly to his die-hard fans. And, once again, a full Royal Festival Hall cheered and stood at the end. But Pollini is not the pianist he was. One remembers the leonine Petrushka DG recording; a cherished memory of Mozart Piano Concertos (14 and 17) in Manchester in the early 1980s with the ECO; stupendous Schumann (Allegro in B minor and Davidbundlertänze at the Festival Hall in the 1983/4 season). Not to mention his complete Beethoven Sonata cycle in London. These, and much more. But as we see him now, today, this is a very different experience.
While the Debussy held much to admire, the Chopin was consistently disappointing. This, after a lifetime built around the music of Chopin, after winning the 1960 Chopin Competition, was perhaps particularly cruel. The finest playing was in the pair of Op.62 Nocturnes, and the finest playing within that opus came in the second. The trills of Op.62/1 were too earthbound, lacking in the fantastical. In one sense this is Pollini through and through: objective, aloof, but now no longer pristine. The second Nocturne of the set felt on firmer ground, holding magical filigree.
Technique faltered in the F sharp minor Polonaise, a mere shadow of Pollini’s magisterial early DG recording where the Polonaise form was palpably felt to be the beating heart of a proud nation. It is almost painful to write of technical frailty in this context, but that is what was here, and with it a softening of that heart; moments of brilliance were to be cherished. There were passages of magic in the Berceuse, heard after a late addition, the Mazurka Op.56/3, which held a world of experience, pedalling carefully considered. Incidentally, all three Op.56 Mazurkas are included in Pollini’s most recent Chopin recording, as is the Berceuse, released in January 2019. The old favourite, the Third Scherzo (sometimes used as an encore in Pollini’s recitals), again, held moments of the Pollini of old; but the confidence is less now, the edge-of-the-seat virtuosity in tandem with the ability to conjure true beauty now dulled, the odd passage just splashy. The feeling of rushing his fences is a trait one encounters more and more in Pollini’s recitals.
The second part held the first book of Debussy Préludes. Once more, this is music Pollini has recorded although, for me, it has always been with the Debussy Études that Pollini has felt most at home. And yet, there were moments of pure congruence between interpreter and music: a magical ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’, a whispered ‘Des pas sur la neige’, both offered in high contrast to the more outgoing ‘West Wind’ (‘Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’ouest’). Pollini’s ‘Puck’s Dance’ may have been a trifle earthbound for this mischievous sprite, but there was plenty to admire, including a fascinating revelling in the rhythms of ‘La sérénade interrompue’.
The characteristic Pollini singing was heard on many occasions, often but not exclusively when the going got tough. Given the audience’s enthusiastic reception, there were inevitably encores: ‘Feux d’artifice’, the final offering of Préludes Book II, in a wonderfully controlled performance, the ‘Marseillaise’ hanging enigmatically in the air towards the close; and finally another Pollini favourite, the Chopin G minor Ballade, as so often held at an emotional distance.