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12.4.04

Scale This! Pollini Plays Chopin

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Maurizio Pollini, Chopin Études, op. 10 and op. 25 (1972)

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Maurizio Pollini, Chopin Boxed Set with Études, Polonaises, and Preludes

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More than 30 years after this recording was made, I finally discovered Maurizio Pollini's version of the Chopin Études, op. 10 and op. 25 (Deutsche Gramophone, 1972) for myself. Wow! Music intended to improve specific technical skills for players who seemingly don't need it, Chopin's two collections of twelve etudes each go farther beyond a mere practice manual than any etudes up until that point (notably those of Beethoven's pupil Czerny, who also gets a nod from Debussy in his Twelve Études). They are, not the least in Pollini's hands, works that stand on their own.

When the Études, op. 10, came out, they were rightly considered Chopin's first masterpiece and manifested Chopin as one of the true "Große Kleinmeister" (great masters of little things), a phrase that led the immortal Horowitz (speaking about Domenico Scarlatti, I think) to the remark that that was at any rate preferable than a "Kleiner Großmeister."

With the close, dry, and almost sharp DG sound—perhaps not as true to the piano sound as others, like the masterful Ashkenazy recording—furthering the pristine, crystalline sound of Pollini's playing, the result is a blazing entry in the two first Allegro etudes in C major and A minor. Breakneck-speed scales sweep you off your feet and the almost eerie surefingeredness of Pollini makes for incredible music. This is, by all means, an account of the Études that shows technical brilliance, diamondlike in perfection but also edging towards the cool (though never uninvolved) and less emotional end of the interpretive spectrum. Again, Ashkenazy is the best example for the more felt, sensitive way of playing these pieces.

No velvet with Pollini, though. This is Chopin for lovers of Nietzschean scales, mountaintops with cold air. Pollini affords the listener no rest, but with his playing, I would think that few people, even if they ultimately prefer their Chopin a bit cushier, would want to rest at any point. As always, the most enjoyment can be drawn from the recording when listening at high volume (turn it down a little if you just listened to the Ashkenazy, or else you might have to chat with your local police officer, courtesy of your neighbor) through headphones or completely undisturbed, perhaps in the dark, at night—in bed or a comfortable chair, eyes closed. There is, in this work and interpretation, little danger of falling asleep.

Etudes, like op. 25, no. 5, in E minor, are vivace, indeed. Spirited but not quite sprightly, Pollini steps over alleged difficulties with ease and make nonsense of the friendly polemics that Ludwig Rellstab poured out over the Études when they came out: "Those with crooked fingers will have them bent straight by these Études, but whoever has straight ones must stay away from them." The lento etudes, of which there are just two and a half, might be considered to suffer from Pollini's approach, but they too are endowed with an inflection that is at the very least interesting and furthermore refreshing in their steely touch. It never sounds as though a lack of willingness or even ability may be the cause for their presentation, but rather choice. A choice that may not be for everyone, but of the many accounts of the Études, this is one that deserves to be in every library. As I happily found out, it's never too late for that.

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