in: Reviews

April 28, 2010

Patrician Pollini Exalts Chopin, Matchless Innovator of the Piano

by

The guiding lights for the 72-year-old Celebrity Series of Boston were no doubt aware that, in presenting Maurizio Pollini, a Chopin interpreter whose legendary stature is firmly established, they were confronting young music lovers and those enamored of applying the label “definitive” with strong, perhaps indelible impressions. Listeners with a good recall of exceptional historic and modern performances may have been puzzled, now and then, by the absence of affective aspects of Chopin playing they had hoped to take in. Sunday afternoon’s Symphony Hall audience, enjoyably abuzz and looking as sold-out as it was, welcomed this astonishing pianist with enthusiasm and palpable warmth. In the businesslike manner for which he has been known since his early appearances in the late 1950s, he sat down and established an intense, austerely focused atmosphere in which the boundless inventiveness and sheer brilliance of Frédéric Chopin, not of his interpreter, were ravishingly, often pointedly on display. Mr. Pollini’s supreme economy of movement and slight, sure gestures make one think, obviously, of the word “patrician.”

There is indeed Chopin one doesn’t know, unless one is an encyclopedically inclined pianist. Still, a new Chopin soundscape is always more than just recognizable in its sweep, harmonic vigor, and glittering figurations.  Mr. Pollini’s beautifully processional opening of the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49 (1841) gave attention-getting notice of the rigor and precision with which he would play the music. It also established such seriousness and severity of approach that it verged on dearth of heart. To offset this layer of chill, ears soon confirmed what binoculars had promised — the exceptionally ravishing tonal and technical characteristics of a piano well outside our modern norm, Mr. Pollini’s touring Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini concert grand. Of this instrument, more shortly.

One does not encounter the four terse Mazurkas, Op. 30 (1836-37) all that often as a group. They remind one of Chopin’s incomparable ability to fashion very complete, magically self-contained small worlds. As they emerged, the roiling darkness and compact harmonic events of each were heightened by their closely gathered keys — C, B, D-flat, C-sharp — an effect intensified by Mr. Pollini’s enormous precision in letting every note, every thrust of smaller and larger harmonic evolution, be heard with complete lack of ambiguity. The unusually clear and rich piano tone, as well as the astonishing speed of effect of the brilliantly regulated dampers (genuinely rare), only augmented the powerful impression these Mazurkas left.

When the swirling, strange Sonata No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 35 (1837-39) first appeared, its odd shape and the restlessness of three of the four movements attracted a great deal of contemporary comment. Mark Thaddeus Willams’s fine program notes quoted Schumann’s review of the newly published sonata, in which the four movements, puzzlingly bearing the title of Sonata, struck him as “four of [Chopin’s] most reckless children.” In this work of difficult technical execution and concept, Mr. Pollini brought such distinct shadings of forte dynamics to bear that these gradations became an independent expressive element within his taut, magisterial unfolding of the dense few pages of the work. Could a lesser musician have achieved this? Absolutely not, nor would such explicit and colorful layerings of sound have been possible on most concert grands. The very fast tempi in some places, such as the concluding fourth movement, Finale: Presto, were entirely devoid of piano clatter, nor did the concluding bedlam of triplets devolve into misting blurs.

Mr. Pollini’s return to the stage for the second half brought big pianism. He unveiled an entire new quiver of powerful bass textures, sounds he had not yet called upon. This pianist’s honoring of Chopin the innovator continued almost as a tour of austerely renovated rooms in which familiar elements were newly, and usually fairly dryly, lit. One third of the way into the first of Two Nocturnes, Op. 48 (1841), a C-minor study in contrast and overt effect, a Lisztian gout of troubled, rearing waters erupted even more vehemently than the boldest pages of the Sonata. It was a deep pleasure to hear an instrument that could do this without a hint of strain. Thanks to Mr. Pollini’s minute management of dynamics, timbre, and the piano’s advanced damping abilities, the stillest moments got that way instantly, which is magic. The largest sonic excursion came in the tempestuous Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 (1840-41). This is a famous work, yet it was still something of a revelation to experience the extreme clarity of this piano and its player’s ultra-precise elicitation of fine nuance, even at levels of sound that, on many a conventional concert D, sound coarse or brutal.

The Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842) moved too quickly for any of its potential for languor or lyricism to emerge. Mr. Pollini cast remarkably cool light on the piece’s overall architecture, making splendid sense of its unity and wonderful cohesion, but he side-stepped moments of songfulness, or of momentary relenting, in favor of uncomfortably forward-pushing motion. The tempo-compressed end, robbed of the possibility of broadening even minutely, felt harried. Concluding the formal concert program, Mr. Pollini tossed off a very big and, to these ears, overblown Polonaise in Ab, Op. 53l’Héroique” (1842). The beautiful dynamic control and the exquisite smaller passages aside, this truly came off as a public sporting event. It was cheered as such.

A pianist can make no more generous a gesture than to extend his time with an appreciative, supportive audience. The two marvellously contrasting encores reestablished some of what the final two scheduled works had drifted away from. They proclaimed Maurizio Pollini’s after-hours delight in sharing a final few glimpses of Chopin, the incomparable and still unsurpassed pianistic innovator, with his listeners. In the suddenly quieted hall, Mr. Pollini returned to the spirit of the recital’s first half with the titanic Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 31La Méditation” (1837). This is no small work. Its grandeur and spaciousness completely banished the rustle of poised-to-dash Bostonians. After a good deal more applause, Mr. Pollini strode briskly back to the keyboard and evoked the most beautiful, transparent sounds of the day, with the haunting, ephemeral Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 57 (1843). You will have to live a long life to hear Chopin of such delicate, jeweled transparency in concert.

See related article here.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

2 Comments

  1. This is surely one of the most perceptive reviews I’ve encountered in BMInt, and the companion piece on Maurizio Pollini’s Fabbrini Steinway is a must-read for anyone interested in the piano. Thank you, Mr. Greenleaf!

    One small qualification: Pollini played Op 53 with a grandeur and nobility that Chopin himself might have envied. That he might be held in any way responsible for the audience’s lusty reaction is amusingly ironic. After all, has there ever been a pianist to whom notions of sporting events or gaudy technical displays were more alien?

    Comment by Nimitta — May 5, 2010 at 11:39 pm

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