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
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?