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14.1.07

Great Pianists, Great Expectations

2006 offered three new releases in the Universal catalogue that have made a modestly big splash, all in their own way. Where three star pianists – Deutsche Grammophon’s Maurizio Pollini, Philips’ Mitsuko Uchida and Decca’s Vladimir Ashkenazy – take on standard repertoire that they have not tackled before on record, great expectations are inevitable. Fulfilling them is often more difficult, and the results here are a mixed bag, too.


Ashkenazy – Bach

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Bach, WTC Bk.1 & 2, Ashkenazy
If a pianist hasn’t already always worked with Bach, then they will find to him later in life, late in their careers. Just like Pianist/Conductor Daniel Barenboim recently put on CD the ‘Old Testament’ of the piano repertoire, the Well Tempered Clavier (giving WTC a more benign meaning in the following paragraphs than is now usually associated with the acronym), in a very personal recording, so does Pianist/Conductor Ashkenazy – similarly enjoying an Indian Summer – grapple with the two books of the WTC.

The result is – on three CDs, no less, which brings substantial savings over Barenboim’s five (!) or the usual four – magnificent playing: robust and confident, intelligent and with feeling. It is personal, but it is also “safe”, without notable idiosyncrasies. It is humble, kind, gentle… in a way it’s much like Ashkenazy himself. Any basic music library should have a complete set of the WTC and this could well be the set to fill the gap, if such a gap is inexcusably present. There’s a rub, though, and that’s the sense of facelessness of this recording… almost an anonymity that makes it no less enjoyable but a touch bland and less engaging than other versions. One might as well (or rather) listen to Mme. Tureck (DG) or Sviatoslav Richter (RCA), or Friedrich Gulda (Philips), or Angela Hewitt (Hyperion), or András Schiff (Decca) and get Bach work communicated to you more vividly. Glenn Gould (Sony) is, well, Glenn Gould; Barenboim (Warner Classics) an unabashed romantic; either version will have those who adore, love, and worship those performances, others will hate them. (‘Library’ issues they are not, that is for sure.)

I respect and even admire Ashkenazy’s Bach, but I can’t love it… nor can I get myself excited about it. I would never talk someone out of getting Ashkenazy’s set (not even if Hewitt was sitting next to it on the shelf), but I’d not likely recommend it in light of the above mentioned recordings… and those only include those artists who have recorded both books of the WTC – and only on the piano. (The harpsichord version I currently know is Jerome Hantaï’s on Mirare.)


Pollini – Chopin

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Chopin, Nocturnes, Pollini
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Études


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Ballades


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Concerto


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Sonatas
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Preludes


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Polonaises


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Ét., Pol., Prel.


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Scherzi
Maurizio Pollini can put a check-mark next to another important part of the Chopin repertoire, he has now added the Nocturnes to his extant Etudes, Preludes, Polonaises, Scherzi, the Berceuse, the Barcarolle, Sonatas no.2 and 3 and the first piano concerto. The disc has been out on the European market since late 2005 but wasn’t released in North America until April 11th of 2006 – coinciding with Pollini’s recital tour. Reception of this recording has been mixed; though it probably garnered more negative or unenthusiastic reviews. Carla Moreni in 24’Ore found it excellent upon first hearing. Classics Today France trounced it, Gramophone was indistinct in its lukewarm verdict.

I can’t say that the recording convinces me in its entirety, either. Not all the Nocturnes are works that ask enough of Pollini; their surface-focused nature does not allow Pollini’s strength to shine. Although the Milanese pianist is his usual note-perfect, there are even moments where I am tempted to think of this as a sloppy recording; perhaps the occasional humming or very audible breathing distracts here and there – the sound of the piano meanwhile is well captured and full. But there is more to the recording. There is no one, for example, who I’d rather hear in the op.9 and op.15 Nocturnes; especially not in the powerful E-flat major op.9, no.2 where he keeps his head high and sails through with strength and spine before he calms it down.

Pollini does what he can always be relied upon to do with ease: turn from stern marble to a sentimentality that you sense on the inside… even if the face is still grim. Like when the authoritarian relative stops admonishing, pauses, becomes silent and you can feel that inside, he sheds tears; tears he would never allow you see. He looks away, trying to look sterner, still. But the sadness grips you. That is until he catches himself again and races out as he raced in: unflappable and as if your little moment together had never happened.

With Pollini (and at the danger of falling into the trap of oft-repeated stereotypes) you feel the occasional chill of the mild May or September night in Mediterranean Europe – not unpleasant… walking by the lake, the yachts now moored, laughter and clinking of glasses reaches you faintly over the water. Other versions of the nocturnes make you take your jacket off, provide for sweltering warm nights.

Your musical climate might determine what you find in the different accounts of the Nocturnes, notably those by Claudio Arrau (slow and stately), Daniel Barenboim (romantic and broad), Artur Rubinstein (elegant with gait) or Maria João Pires (the most felt, caressed version). What Pollini does not provide, so much is clear from the first Nocturne on, is a set for all seasons.


Uchida – Beethoven

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Beethoven, Sonatas 30-32, Uchida
Finally, Mitsuko Uchida, an undisputed ivory-goddess in Mozart and mildly controversial, genial Schubert player, takes to Beethoven’s late sonatas – covering similar territory as Alfred Brendel and Radu Lupu, pianists she heard and admired as a young pianist in London. There are not many pianist who don’t tread in the late Beethoven Sonatas – not all come back to tell the tale. It is no secret that I zealously favor Maurizio Pollini’s breathtaking, mountain-climbing, chiseled, vertical accounts over just about anything everything else. I try and try again, but few other pianists really tickle my fancy as much in these works. Not Arrau (Philips), not Ashkenazy (Decca), not Brendel (Philips), not Gilels (except his Hammerklavier - DG), not Gulda (Brilliant / Decca), not Kempff (mono or stereo, DG), not Kurti (Analekta), not Richter (Russia Disc). I was very pleasantly surprised by an old Philips recording with the now-unknown Hans Richter-Haaser (on March 4th, 1969 he was the soloist in the NSO's first performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.# 25, by the way) of sonata no.28 (op.101), but opp.109-111 are not to be had, with him. (Actually, there was an old Columbia recording [33CX1666] with his op.110 and 111 out once... if he is as nonchalantly un-bothered, regal, cool, weightless in these as in no.28, I want to hear them on CD! Testament, where are you?)

Along comes Mitsuko Uchida and much to my delight manages to stand out of the crowd of sublime superstar disappointments. Sonata no.30, op. 109, starts dreamy and well-loved – a good deal softer than even Chopin would sound in Pollini’s hands… it’s Debussy-like. But we haven’t wishy-washy Beethoven here, just a contemplative one. It is the highlight of the disc, I would say, after having listened to it on and off for well over half a year. It very nearly lifted the recording onto the Best of 2006 list, too… where I could also have extolled the virtues of her last movement of op.110 which has a contagious rhythmic, almost bouncy, feeling that startles at first and then immediately delights. Finally, the luxurious and deep, weighty variations in op.111 were the stuff that allowed me to stop thinking about Pollini while listening to them. (I used to always feel a vague sense of guilt during those works when played by the hands of others; perhaps like lying with a woman but thinking about another…) Uchida put an end to that with playing that is sufficiently different if not better (but musically ‘informed’ and technically flawless) – and her release shows that we can expect more Beethoven from her with great hope – especially as her playing might be even better suited to the earlier sonatas.

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