Maurizio Pollini’s Intellectual and Pianistic Mastery at the Salzburg Festival

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [6] – Schoenberg, Nono, and Beethoven: Maurizio Pollini (piano), André Richard (sound direction). Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 18.8.2019. (MB)

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
(c) Salzburger Festspiele/Marco Borrelli

Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces Op.11; Six Little Piano Pieces Op.19
Nono – …..sofferte onde serene…
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.31 in A-flat major Op.110; Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111

Much to admire here, as ever, from Maurizio Pollini. If not everything we heard spoke quite with the control it might once have done, and some of Schoenberg’s Op.11 Three Piano Pieces sounded a little neutral, the sense not only of musical understanding but of music’s ethical role remained undimmed, arguably even heightened in the latter case. Motivic insistence was to the fore in the first of those Schoenberg pieces: Brahms singing through post-Wagnerian harmony. If the hyper-Romanticism one often finds here were not so prominent, anticipations of the serial Schoenberg, especially the Piano Concerto, were more so. The second piece received a performance of unusual intimacy; even at its starkest, sounds dissolving before our ears. The nagging obstinacy of Schoenberg’s ostinato seemed very much to attain an ethical dimension: an integrity closely allied to that of the pianist himself. If the third piece confounded Busoni, when sent the music by Schoenberg, it did not Pollini, whose clarification of texture and structure again seemed to look forward to the later Schoenberg.

The Six Little Pieces Op.19, received a wonderful performance. (Or should that be ‘wonderful performances’? I am never quite sure, a problem which perhaps tells us something about the ambiguity of such ‘pieces’ and their part in a greater whole.) The first, distilled, more intimate still – audience bronchial activism notwithstanding – displayed such variety of articulation, all at the service of the phrase and its place in the greater structure, as to further the illusion of a ‘natural’ outpouring. The starkness of obstinacy was again to the fore in the second, the third and fifth pieces offering, in work and performance, music as perfectly chiselled as Mozart. There came further contrast in between them, in the fourth, but also synthesis: latent violence and grace. And the sixth, famously inspired by Mahler’s funeral, ‘wie ein Hauch’: one could almost see and feel the graveyard and its chill: then and now. Magical.

In Nono’s …..sofferte onde serene…, written for Pollini, we heard the sounds of the city (Venice), its sights, fears, possibilities surrounding us. It was, of course, a human city, no mere collection of buildings or even waterways, though those played their parts. More strongly than ever, I was put in mind of the wonderful 2001 film by Bettina Ehrhardt, A Trail on the Water: Abbado – Nono – Pollini. This was ultimately a world not of conflict, but of cooperation: a vision of what might be, as well as a reflection of what is (or was). Such an imperative to listen, and joy in doing so, offered a communion that, if not strictly theological, was not without its religious impulse. The music’s unfolding proved as inevitable as it was surprising.

Simple yet proliferating, never quite to be reduced to either, the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.110 sonata, was taken relatively swiftly. The marriage we heard of the intractable and serene, whilst unmistakeably Beethovenian, also made connections with the Schoenberg pieces heard earlier. Much the same might be said of the second movement, a few technical difficulties in the trio notwithstanding. The mystery of the third movement’s opening harmony – where were we? – led inexorably to the sadness of that final song, to the fugue, both ways up, and somewhere beyond. If, towards the close, one might have wished for a little more of the clarity of Pollini’s earlier years, direction and, again, ethical imperative remained undimmed.

Finally, Op.111: one of those works in which we feel we have ventured as far as it is possible for us to go. (‘Caminantes, no hay caminos. Hay que caminar,’ as Nono read in a monastery inscription, inspiring him at the end of his life to continue to travel, a lack of paths both necessity and inspiration.) Beethoven’s reckoning, perhaps not final yet certainly late, with his life-long C minor daemon, sounded with all the impetuosity of his youth, the development section in particular a battle both fierce and tender, two sides of the same humanist coin. The second movement was possessed by a noble simplicity that yet contained so much within it. Here, Pollini sounded to me unquestionably at his greatest, continuing to question and to relish the strangeness of Beethoven’s variations, as early as the first. Transformation was very much a numinous thing of wonder, no mere ‘process’, just as in Schoenberg and Nono. And yet, there was always grit in the oyster: this was human music, not entirely transcendent, whatever that may mean. The sheer energy with which Pollini scaled this most extraordinary of peaks offered a standing rebuke to his dreary detractors, thrilling to an almost unbearable extent (in the very best way). ‘Sublime’ may be a word overused, but it is unavoidable here, the music’s close so pure, so gossamer white. Deconstruction we can leave until another day. As for the idiot who immediately disrupted the spell with a puerile shout of ‘Bravo!’…

Mark Berry

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