United Kingdom Schumann and Chopin: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.3.2022. (MB)
Schumann – Arabesque Op.18; Fantaisie in C major, Op.17
Chopin – Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.35; Berceuse in D-flat major, Op.57; Polonaise in A-flat major, Op.53
No one who heard this concert will forget it. Not because it was billed as Maurizio Pollini’s eightieth birthday concert (a stretch, given his birthday had fallen two months earlier), although the warmth of audience affection, give or take a telephone call or two, was palpable from the outset. It was, rather, on account of the Chopin Second Sonata. The advertised Mazurka, Op.56 No.3, did not open the second half; the Sonata did. Its first movement was vehement, immediate, perhaps the result of greater physical effort than once would have been the case, yet if anything all the more moving for it. How it sang too, not so much tugging at the heartstrings as wrenching them. Sentiment, not sentimentality. The exposition’s struggle was greater the second time around. Already, we knew. A grimly inexorable scherzo gave way to relative relief in the trio, though we knew it would not last. While it did, though, we were bade to listen anew: something needed now more than ever.
The Funeral March was, quite simply, overwhelming. Chopin and Pollini spoke as one, with outstanding clarity, directly to humanity. Sometimes there is a case for words; Pollini has been known to use them from the platform himself, less often than his well-nigh exact contemporary, Daniel Barenboim, yet with similar moral authority. Here, there was no such case. The voice of the human spirit in the central nocturne, a veritable epiphany, rose as if a single survivor from surrounding carnage. It was far from untroubled, and all the greater for it. Nor did time stand still; rather it held us in its sweet embrace, having us believe the movement were on the scale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, or even that of Götterdämmerung, whose Siegfried had been buried only the night before at Madrid’s Teatro Real, draped in a Ukrainian flag. The ferocious, inhuman finale, quite without pity, terrified as the chill wind whose name and nature we dare not contemplate. In both movements, we knew. Applause was like none other I can recall in the middle of a recital. We knew.
The recital began with Schumann. His C major Arabeske had Bach as fons et origo, immanent, yet subtly inflected, aiding and propelling Schumann’s narrative. The dignity, moral and aesthetic, on which Pollini’s authority is founded was present from the outset. Again, sentiment, not sentimentality, the pathos of the minor-key episodes deeply moving. Half-lights of transition tended already towards Brahms.
The Fantaisie opened, still more so, in the midst of things. If a whirlwind could be ardent and confessional, it would have been this. Again, emotional and intellectual integrity stood out. Starkness of opposition and alchemy of transition emerged not through sleight of hand, but through understanding that much lies between the notes. Formal challenges, especially yet not only in the first movement, were communicated and lived with relish, not smoothed over. This was a performance of possibilities, not of banal ‘solution’. Already, music spoke and sang as if it had words yet stood beyond them. There was an unmistakeably humanist, even heroic determination to the late Beethovenian line of a second movement that knew it could no longer be Beethoven. It was our lot as well as Schumann’s. It was, moreover, an almost Elgarian nobilmente we heard prior to temporary subsiding of the waves. If every single note were not there, so what? So much lies between and beyond them anyway. The third movement looked back at what had passed; this was the vindication of a seer (or better, a listener). Its emotional arc, founded on perfect harmonic understanding, offered a lesson in humanism as richly satisfying as those of Brahms or Schoenberg.
An impossibly consoling Berceuse followed Chopin’s Sonata. Rock solid of rhythm, it was yet infinitely pliable. Through the truest of rubato, as Chopin’s glistening waters delighted, even seduced. From an A-flat Polonaise of (fatally?) wounded swagger, there emerged a struggle worthy of Beethoven or Liszt, the foe mechanised and monstrous, heroism lying in further nocturnal depths. We knew, as we did in the cruelly if necessarily demanded encore: the G minor Ballade, its clarity of line equal to that of its moral purpose. Carrara marble of Pollini’s youth aurally gleamed once more, yet the depth of suffering was new, of our time alone. Strange realms were visited as if for the first time. In whispered confidence, in aching sorrow, in the proudest of defiance, we knew.