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Pollini at Carnegie Hall, Chopin and Debussy, Maurizio Pollini (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 17th October 2004 (BH)


Chopin:Two Nocturnes, Op. 32, No. 1 (1837); Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47 (1841), Sonata No. 2 (1837)

Debussy: Preludes, Book II (1911-13)


Debussy: "Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest" from Preludes, Book I
Chopin: Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23; Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15; Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No. 4



If some Chopin might be seen as a precursor to some Debussy, then the latter could be looking ahead to Ligeti, at least in the elegant analysis drawn by Maurizio Pollini on Sunday afternoon, in his typically probing, gorgeously played recital. At the pinnacle of his career, this artist can pretty much call his own shots, and I think I speak for most in the audience: show us whatever you like, Maurizio.


The opening two Chopin Nocturnes and Ballade were distinguished by subtle colorings, delicacy and impressive accuracy – all of which were in evidence throughout the program. If occasionally the hushed lines seemed almost too self-effacing, Pollini offered pinpoint phrasing – everything laid out with amazing lucidity. He seems to use more pedal than some, but his results were never muddy or blurred, even in the startlingly fast final movement of the Chopin Piano Sonata. Octaves were always precisely voiced, ringingly clear, creating sensuous overtones in Carnegie’s space. I was grateful to have a seat on the side, slightly above the keyboard, to better watch the pianist’s rapidly darting hands. The famous third movement, the Marche funèbre, began with a quiet freshness that belied its overexposure; I am often in wonderment at how great artists can reinvent works that have become stale. Pollini found a quiet relentlessness, almost a growing desperation in its somber pace.



In the Debussy Preludes, the opening Brouillards seemed to anticipate Ligeti’s Etudes (which I hope Pollini will consider recording at some point), with comparable clouds of sound. Although I loved the Chopin, these fascinating pieces seemed to show off more of Pollini’s meticulous technique, and somehow catch his imagination even more acutely. This was crystalline Debussy, in the manner of Pierre Boulez, and I savored every glittering phrase. Other pleasures: the giddy cakewalk in General Lavine—eccentric, and the quiet glow of Feuilles mortes. Other pianists may find more humor and revel in their luxuriousness with more heart-on-sleeve abandon, but few people can play them with the utter control and intensity, not to mention sheer accuracy that Pollini commands, with each phrase, each note securely placed, with the focus of a fine jeweler. And even fewer could add the "quiet teacher" hat to the mix, since the pianist’s juxtapositions are always instructive. (I still recall his afternoon back in the 1990s, alternating Beethoven and Stockhausen to bracing effect.)


The crowd only grew quieter and quieter as the concert progressed, so by the time we reached the final two dazzlers, Les Tièrces Alternées and Feux d’artifice, everyone in the house seemed to be leaning forward, especially riveted. A friend with me was so immersed, so lost in thought that he could hardly believe that the last forty minutes or so had already passed.


The generous program included four encores, launched by a cheering audience as Pollini strode back and forth to the piano: one more dazzling Debussy Prelude from the first book, and three more Chopin pieces. With typical Pollini symmetry, the set seemed a sort of inverse microcosm of everything that had preceded it.


Bruce Hodges



This article is dedicated to Jane Moorefield Heumann (1935-2004), New York City-based pianist, teacher, scholar and languages aficionado, mother to two marvelous sons, and all-around wonderful friend, who deeply adored literature, music, art, poetry, experimental performance, history, politics, Italian culture, good food and wine, wearing pearls, and staying out late – even crashing the occasional downtown rock club. In addition to her many virtues, she gave me confident, insightful and gentle advice on my writing, for which I will always be grateful. Among the many pianists she admired, Pollini was her hands-down favorite, and she never missed one of his recitals.

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