Pollini plays Chopin

Maurizio Pollini
Chopin Recital
Royal Festival Hall
March 1st, 2010

One of the supreme highlights of my concert calendar this year was always going to be Pollini’s Chopin birthday recital. Pollini was the second pianist – after my father – I heard playing Chopin, and my view of the composer – and indeed of pianism more generally – is irrevocably bound up with Pollini’s studied asceticism. Yet at the same time, I was distinctly wary. For if Pollini has inherited his untouchably aristocratic air from Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, he has also inherited his great mentor’s ability to disappoint. In the event, disappointment was nowhere to be found in a jam-packed Festival Hall, including on the crowded rear-stage “young-persons” section first introduced for Pollini’s Beethoven sonata cycle in 1995/6.

He began, perhaps surprisingly, with the Preludes, opening with a markedly slow C major which set the tone for an interpretation that emphasized the experimental harmonies and tight yet intriguing formal designs of many of these pieces over their immediate emotional appeal. The even clarity, for example, with which he was able to bring the dense counterpoint of the A minor Prelude – aided by a superbly supercharged Fabbrini Steinway – and the sustained dissonances of the F-sharp major was truly remarkable. Of course there were fireworks too, the “fuoco” of the B-flat minor Prelude being predictably if still unbelievably white-hot, but the beauty of Pollini’s playing when on form consists of his combining astonishing technical command with an ability to convey the agonies involved in acquiring it.

The elevated mood was sustained in the second half, which included the first Ballade, the two Op 27 Nocturnes and Eight Études from Op. 25, including completely shattering performances of Nos 11 (“Winter Wind”) and 12 in C minor. Evidently in good humour – with extensive encores, including the third Scherzo – Pollini presented himself, and Chopin, at his best.

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