Concert Review

Pollini in Zurich. Debussy Etudes and Boulez Sonata No.2. Tonhalle, Zurich, 16 February 2000

Maurizio Pollini's South Bank concerts in February were cancelled (London schedules were seriously disrupted, with many musicians flu victims). Nothing daunted, Seen&Heard caught up with him at Zurich.

Pierre Boulez was not present at the Tonhalle to enjoy what would have been one of the most gratifying birthday presents during his 75th year, which is being celebrated generously in UK and elsewhere. Boulez's 2nd Piano Sonata, originally deemed unplayable (Yvonne Loriod burst into tears at the prospect of learning it!) and long rated a bête noir and a fearful challenge to pianists and listeners alike, was received with rapt attention by a Zurich audience of some 2000, packed to the rafters and with standers. At the end, it earned Pollinni a long sustained ovation, which brought a smile of pleasure, and perhaps relief, to his generally impassive face.

There had been no popular bait to draw in the public; the first half devoted to Debussy's twelve Etudes, which are only now beginning to creep into the recital repertoire and would have been unfamiliar to nearly all of this general concert audience. This was not an assembly of the contemporary music faithful, and demonstrated what a valuable service illustrious preformers can do for difficult music of their own time, their persistence in adventurous programming gradually succeeding in turning round established conversatism. Switzerland is a country which is musically unadventurous, one in which its own composers are little played and have to scrape their livings otherwise; without the advocacy of a Pollini (presumably with the support of his agent and concert promoter) the music chosen would have remained remote and unheard.

The Debussy studies were played with the combination of virtuosity and subtle nuance for which Pollini is justly famed. From back stalls the sound was clear but with loss of a little detail. Having moved during the interval to unoccupied seats on the platform, behind the foot of the piano, the Boulez sonata (played from memory, as was the entire recital) was totally enthralling and its sound world unexpectedly comfortable. Mystifying though it had been thirty years ago, heard again now after decades of regular exposure to new music, it seemed a natural follow-on from Webern, with some motifs easily tracked through their transformations. Here, sitting some twenty feet away from the legendary pianist, the sound was as immediate as on Pollini's 1978 LP recording of the sonata, reissued on CD by Deutsche Grammophon in their The Originals series of back catalogue transfers (DG 447 431-2, with Stravinsky Petrouchka, Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 and the Webern Variations).

For his encores, Pollini chose Des pas en la neige (appropriate for the evening's snowfall) and La cathedrale engloutie, two of the quietest Debussy Preludes from his recent release of Book 1 with L'Isle joyeuse (CD 445 187-2), for which I was glad to be close enough to enjoy the interior resonances within the piano. Afterwards, Pollini CDs were selling like hot cakes - concert sales, with buyers free from the bewildering profusion of choice in record shops, have become an important dimension in the music business.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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