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S&H Recital review


Brahms, Webern, Stockhausen, Beethoven: Maurizio Pollini (piano). Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday, November 20th, 2001 (CC)

This was a concert that brought together, magnificently, two sides of Maurizio Pollini’s persona: Pollini the Beethoven interpreter and Pollini the champion of the music of our time. And unite them he did in a listening experience that was as thought-provoking as it was exciting.

Brahms-Webern-Stockhausen, the journey of the first half, was made all the more compelling by Pollini’s intense concentration. From the stormy aura of Op. 116 No. 1 through to the tumultuous final Capriccio of the Op. 116 set, Pollini presented such an unforced stream of sound that it was as if he was composing/improvising: there was the distinct impression that these were his own personal musings. The first Intermezzo (Op. 116 No. 2) was positively smouldering, the top voice beautifully projected. Indeed, it was Pollini’s total command of Brahmsian textures and voice leading that lent an air of inevitability to the performance. Only occasionally did a sense of Italianate literalism threaten to creep in.

Webern’s Variations, Op. 27, brought us squarely into the language of the twentieth century. Pollini held the audience to silence in the delicate, lyrical first movement. The second movement, marked ‘sehr schnell’ was a glittering, fleeting moment to cherish and contrasted perfectly with the hard-driven final movement (complete with Pollini’s singing along: a distracting fault he tends to indulge in live, although it seems to be obliterated in the recording studio).

For a major international artist to programme Stockhausen in the Royal Festival Hall and to play it to a goodly-sized audience is encouraging indeed. The fifth Klavierstück of 1954 emerged as an entirely logical evolutionary growth from Webern’s pointillism. Pollini was very alive to the shifting moods, from the almost unbelievably touching (as presented here) to the most violent. Klavierstück IX is probably the most famous of Stockhausen’s oeuvre for solo piano, particularly for its opening multiple repetitions of one chord. Perhaps Pollini could have started louder, but his extended diminuendo during these repetitions was faultless. Again, as in the Brahms, he later recreated the effect of composing as he played (in passages which appeared almost as recitatives), but it was the ‘stellar’, twinkling, glistening sections in which every note could be heard with perfect clarity that became a definition of beauty in music. A shame the audience appeared a little restless at times: Stockhausen’s music still maintains its power to disturb to this day, it seems.

The two Beethoven Sonatas after the interval provided a reminder of Pollini’s momentous Beethoven cycle of several years back The F sharp, Op. 57 and the Appassionata formed a well-contrasted pair. Pollini responded to the warmth of the first movement introduction to Op. 57, but the Allegro ma non troppo which followed was perhaps too unyielding. Memories of this, however, were erased by a superbly even second movement, during which Beethoven’s registral play was given full characterisation.

This must be the fourth or fifth time I have heard Pollini’s Appassionata live, and this was the best so far. The piece grew organically from the hushed opening. Pollini made the most of the violent contrasts, at times unleashing a pure wall of sound. He heeded the ‘con moto’ qualifier to the second movement’s Andante marking whilst simultaneously invoking its prayer-like qualities, and held the audience magically in the palm of his hand before unleashing the onslaught of the finale. The last movement was a positively infernal vortex whose initial tempo always held the final coda latent within itself. It was a breathtaking account and a superb end to a superb concert. There were encores, of course: and who but Pollini would dare to count among them Schoenberg’s Op. 19?

Colin Clarke

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