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Aging Master Attends Old School I


Maurizio Pollini (Robert Torres photo)
Maurizio Pollini (Robert Torres photo)

The playing of the eminent 72-year-old pianist Maurizio Pollini’s is reputedly cool, and it’s not difficult to hear why: his affect has never been heart on sleeve, sometimes almost the opposite—brain on sleeve. I attended his nearly soldout Schumann and Chopin recital in Symphony Hall Sunday for the Celebrity Series with a serious Pollini partisan, a musician as well, who pointed out that it also is not hard to see that the common criticism is wide of the mark. As was crystal-clear from Pollini’s pellucid opening of Schumann’s Arabesque in C Major, there is as much passion in the playing as in anyone’s, but the difference is that he balances it, almost perfectly, with discipline, a discipline that is strong yet in its way equally strongly felt.

Some who are themselves cool on Pollini consider him a technician above all. From the still and limpid first notes of the Arabesque it was clear that this too is wrong. Floaty, although with the master’s trademark slightly pushed and chopped (shortened) rubato, it was as relaxed and inviting as any piano recital opening I have ever heard, already like an encore. Kreisleriana followed, one of three important collections of short strange pieces totaling approximately the same half-hour length, but such different ways of passing that time. This rendition tumbled, wonderfully brisk if not brusque in spots, two adjectives that sometimes negatively follow Pollini. ‘Sehr innig’ was exclamatory perfection, and not too rushed, quite as is directed. The closing ‘Quick and playful’, with jazzy lefthand, lacked the last touch of lilt, showing that Pollini may sometimes be a stiff dancer. His somewhat blown ending, where Florestan’s mouse pal or whatever it is makes its final quiet jumps, was accompanied by a perfectly placed, ff cough.

(Like in so much of the rest of the recital. People, people, here is what the hell to do: bring throat lozenges without fail; jam elbow crook up to mouth instantly when you feel it coming on, like any smart kindergartner; if really loud, bend forward to knees and cover head with coat; and above all avoid projecting coughs in quiet sections, however much that dynamic level evidently entices all undisciplined and inconsiderate humans to embellish the quietude. This packed performance of outstanding pianism was seriously marred by the most boorish and unrelenting coughing.)

Chopin’s already dramatic and intriguing Sonata No. 2 became moving and compelling in Pollini’s hands. Such patrician and calm playing as this is not so common with today’s hotshots. The tripping-forward opening felt hair-trigger. Staggered interhand rhythms sounded as weird as needed, and again it occurred to me that this guy really disdains rests. The legendary technique is obviously in some decline, as smeared trills and sometimes rushed cadences made plain, but it hardly mattered. This was the Chopin of a master, the Funeral March as gripping and indeed otherwise perfect as it gets, and the speaking-of-weird final long flurry of a movement, disconnected and dissociated its ghostly ways like some special effect.

The ensuing Berceuse likewise was as good as pianism can get. This is an odd piece, tricky rhythmically and in most other ways, and I have never heard it done so fluidly and clearly. The concluding Polonaise no. 6 was over-pedaled, uncrisp and rushed in profile, but, but. My partisan compadre noted that Pollini may be the “only pianist in the world who can deliver all the nobility in a Chopin polonaise without veering into bluster or sweatiness. Indeed, speaking of Pollini’s career altogether, he is perhaps the one pianist of our time whose technique is absolutely of the first rank but who never allows the presence of that technique to define his musical judgment. His mind is always ahead of his fingers. There were a lot of amazing things about this recital, things you just don’t hear anymore.”

The crowd erupted as if it was an even better performance than it was. I have seldom seen anything in Boston like it. The encores comprised more Chopin: the hypnotic Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 that everyone plays was just magical, especially the split octaves and treble grace notes, and then the Scherzo No. 3, with those chorales of droplets. More eruption.

Pollini’s majorly tweaked Hamburg Steinway, customized by famous Italian piano technician Angelo Fabbrini, who garishly signs his name on the side in gilt underneath the black gold of the manufacturer, merits mention; Christopher Greenleaf thoroughly delved the matter here. This instrument’s sound was startling in each and every of its many beauties, instantly noticeable as such, although some of that surely was Pollini. The profound bass is even richer than one is accustomed to today, but also comparatively un-rich or at least un-thick, lucid, dry, still entirely fundamental. Where we sat on the Symphony Hall floor, the midrange often sounded a little jumbly, probably not Pollini. With such ravishing general sound, I would much like to rehear the recital from, say, a close balcony seat. The fan friend: “The piano seems to make it easier to play softer and to get a much broader dynamic range overall. Some of the music yesterday afternoon was truly pp if not beyond, and it actually felt shocking to be hearing that.”

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The recital wasn’t sold out. The second balcony was not much more than 50% occupied

    Comment by Gene — October 7, 2014 at 11:17 am

  2. This is perhaps the most perceptive review of a Pollini recital that I’ve ever read, across some five decades. Bravo!

    I too found the intense audience reaction to the Op 53 Polonaise surprising, ma non troppo: like that piece, Maurizio Pollini’s art has always impressed me as uniquely noble and heroic. I think it has to do with that stunning juxtaposition noted by David Moran, in which the profoundest feeling is harnessed to a magnificent aesthetic discipline, or several. Pollini’s inborn spatial vessel is so vast as to contain worlds of musical architecture; the fabled technique has always been more than merely digital, as the preternatural limpidity of the Arabesque and Funeral March made clear; yet, his musical vision blazes with a directness bordering on austerity. As David points out, his rubato can have an almost astringent quality, contracted and propulsive, particularly in evoking the manic intensities of both Schumann and Chopin. Hypnotic as the D-flat Nocturne is, and oft-played, no pianist captures its apogees of anguish and agitation like Pollini.

    As he ages, I hear him continuing to grow. No longer capable of that almost surgically immaculate precision of the 1970s and ‘80s, nor concerned with it, his playing sounds freer all the time. To my ears, he probes more than ever, and takes more risks. Although the results can vary more than before, the greatest of his performances that I’ve heard are all in the last decade, all deeply infused with poetry, wisdom and mastery: the Debussy Études here in 2004; Kreisleriana, Stockhausen, and the Hammerklavier at Carnegie Hall in 2007; Tempest, Appassionata, and Schumann Fantasie at CH in 2008; the F minor Ballade here in 2010.

    As for all the explosive, wait-until-it’s-quiet coughing: good advice that needs to be said. I wonder, though, if those who most need to read it have found their way yet to the Arcadia that is BMInt…

    Comment by nimitta — October 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm

  3. Good review. The description of the beginning of the sonata brought it back vividly, and the description of the balance between passion and discipline captures the essence of Pollini’s playing.

    The third Scherzo made a perfect finish, the one place in the concert where we were allowed a little bit of dazzle for its own sake, just a wisp, in all innocence. The performance of the nocturne made you remember why it is so well-loved, while forgetting how the excess of love has spoiled it.

    I think my favorite few minutes of the concert, except perhaps for the encores, was the trio of the Funeral March. This is usually interpreted as a contrasting interlude, a brief escape into a lighter, more lyrical mood, a happy daydream from which the return to the march cruelly awakes us. It seemed to me that Pollini played it as a gentler, more forgiving variation on the opening mood, not a contrast but a reflection, so that we remain in the same solemn space as in the march, not in a state of forgetfulness, but in a state of grace. When the fateful tread returns it is inevitable, but then it always was.

    If I remember correctly it was during this passage that the coughing was at its worst, becoming more insistent and obtrusive. However from where I was sitting it seemed to be coming, mysteriously, from backstage. Perhaps it was a ghost. After all, Chopin did die of tuberculosis.

    Comment by SamW — October 7, 2014 at 11:04 pm

  4. SamW: “Perhaps it was a ghost. After all, Chopin did die of tuberculosis.”

    Wooooo, although to be truthful I was sitting up front and the coughs seemed to issue from behind me. Still…

    And you know, I felt the same way about the Funeral March’s trio. As on his 1st recording, Pollini drew one into the sublimest realm of tender reflection, even as the cortège continues past. To me this passage is one of the pinnacles of Chopin’s art, particularly in the way it evokes the occasion’s unfolding psychological states. The melody mesmerizes with its simplicity, held aloft on luminous arpeggios, its legato floating free for a moment from the procession’s slow shuffle, muffled drumrolls, and spasms of lamentation…

    …not to mention coughing outburts.

    Comment by nimitta — October 8, 2014 at 12:06 pm

  5. You guys have simply got to start reviewing, purply, piano and perhaps other recitals. (I take it you skipped Chodos – ?)

    Comment by David Moran — October 8, 2014 at 1:34 pm

  6. Two recitals in one day is only for the pros.

    Comment by SamW — October 8, 2014 at 2:21 pm

  7. lolz

    Comment by David Moran — October 8, 2014 at 4:39 pm

  8. Purply ? I was going more for green and black, with flecks of gold, and red and brown panels at the sides. Perhaps a little patch of yellow wall. I’m not much for purple.

    Comment by SamW — October 8, 2014 at 6:10 pm

  9. lolz2

    I thought Herbst’s gentle take in the Globe ( was entirely reasonable and, more important, nicely music-oriented; you?

    Comment by David Moran — October 8, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  10. Yes, I liked it too. It’s always good when a review of an event you’ve attended is a mix of confirmations of your own experience and insights that expand that experience in your memory. Unfortunately I agree that there were signs of strain in the first half, that evaporated in the second, which I have never experienced before with Pollini. At any rate it’s a good match to the composers, since there’s always strain in Schumann, and almost never in Chopin.

    Comment by SamW — October 11, 2014 at 6:39 pm

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