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.”