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S & H Recital Review

Chopin, Debussy Maurizio Pollini (piano). RFH, June 5th, 2003 (CC)

This recital was dedicated to the memory of Italian composer Luciano Berio, who died on May 27th. Although there was no contemporary music on Pollini’s programme, he has always been a champion of the avant-garde, including in his repertoire music by several of his countrymen (recordings of Manzoni and Nono spring to mind, as does a Barbican performance of some Sciarrino). Pollini cares about the music of our most recent past: and the dedication of his recital to Berio’s memory seemed to spur Pollini to give his very best (and his very best is unparalleled in pianistic circles today).

Pollini’s reputation in Chopin has always been up there with the greats, ever since his victory in the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1960. Perhaps that explained the sell-out audience. The actual sequence of pieces was intensely satisfying, intimate Nocturnes Opp. 32 and 55 sandwiching the A flat Ballade, followed by the Barcarolle and the Berceuse contrasting with the final C sharp minor Scherzo.

Pollini is not readily associated with the Nocturnes, but his performances here make one sit up and beg for a recording. His achievement was to create an almost miraculous balance between the public and private by projecting his interpretation with the utmost concentration. Despite the fact he launched into Op. 32 No. 1 the second he sat down at the piano stool, silence from the audience was instantaneous. Any sense of warming-in to the recital with these pieces was entirely absent. There was an intensity to the climax of Op. 32 No. 2 which prepared one for the heights of the A flat Ballade.

The lyrical heart of this Ballade was laid bare. Moments of the utmost delicacy and, yes, intimacy, were characteristic of this performance. Not qualities one always readily associate with this pianist, but all the more cherishable for that, and qualities which carried on into the Op. 55 Nocturnes. The unfolding of ornamentation in Op. 55 No. 1 was compelling (as was the perfectly judged diminuendo over arpeggiated chords); the contrapuntal part-writing of Op. 55 No. 2 was presented lucidly and beautifully (interestingly, Pollini sought to invoke an almost organ-like sonority at times).

For a pianist all too frequently accused of over-preparation, the Barcarolle emerged as an outpouring of improvisation, moving inexorably towards its climax. Again, the Berceuse began in a very interior fashion, the ensuing decoration emerging with gossamer lightness – all this was in preparation for the entrance of Pollini the Titan for a strong and powerful C sharp minor Scherzo. Contained energy strained to get out from the very beginning, leaving the listener breathless by the close.

Pollini then directed his unique insights towards Debussy’s second book of Préludes. Here there was clarity within veiled mystery, another interpretative tightrope Pollini trod with expertise. Each Prélude was carefully considered in its own right (the frozen chords of Feuilles mortes; the teasing rhythms of La puerta del vino; the humour of General Lavine; the lovely tonal differentiation of Ondine; the fluttering and flickering of Feux d’artifice), yet each made a part of a greater whole.

Before the by-now inevitable standing ovation, there were bound to be encores, but even by Pollini’s generous standards this was a treat. Debussy’s Cathedrale engloutie was a monument in sound, and the Revolutionary Study fizzed along with angry energy. Perhaps the First Ballade was not such a good idea, however. The unthinkable happened – a memory lapse – before the performance was rescued and the Coda took off.

This was pianism of the very first order, a recital that will be difficult to ever forget.

Colin Clarke


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