Once again, we thank Washington Performing Arts Society for bringing legendary Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini to the Music Center at Strathmore on Wednesday night. His biennial visits to Washington are always a pleasure to be savored, this year as in 2006 and 2004. The program consisted entirely of works he has recorded in his burgeoning discography, almost all of it of the highest order. More than in any previous live hearing, the sense of Pollini as the summa of distant, icy technical perfection did not hold true. Not that Pollini's pianism has suffered that dramatically, but in previous recitals if one noticed one or two elided notes or slight inaccuracies, it was noteworthy, and here there were more, for whatever reason. Pollini is now 66, and technical perfection must at some point begin to fade, so it is hardly surprising that a few more cracks became apparent in the flawless surface of this old world masterpiece.
Chopin op. 33-36, 38
Beethoven op. 57
Beethoven op. 31
Schumann op. 17
What has not faded is the intelligent, architectural comprehension of musical form in each work, or the careful phrasing and emotional control. The recital opened with two Beethoven sonatas, with the "Tempest" (op. 31, no. 2) providing an apt comparison with András Schiff's rendition earlier this month. Here was all the poetry that was missing in Schiff's somewhat methodical reading, an air of unpredictability in the heavily pedaled and drawn-out chords that return again and again, summoning up the image of the isle "full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs." Not only was Pollini's second movement carefree and idyllic, but the third was as flowing, natural, and dance-like as Schiff's had been stilted. The sense of restless agitation pervaded the work, as Pollini took no time to prepare the returns of the rondo theme, allowing it simply to unfold. By contrast, Pollini's performance of the "Appassionata" (op. 57) did not measure up to the memories of the same work played on his 2004 recital. There was still plenty of vigor and inner-voice interest in the variations, but minor flaws by comparison to that earlier performance were too distracting.
Pollini has a musically satisfying approach to Schumann, whose music can so often disappoint for so many measures before absolutely ravishing in only a few. That was true of this rendition of the C major fantasy (op. 17), which opened with a somewhat wild sound, the fantastic bordering on the unmetered in the first section. Mostly, Pollini excelled this time in the Eusebius half of Schumann's musical personality, with dreamy rhapsody in the wandering, aimless parts of the third movement (begun -- oh the shame! -- after some in the audience started clapping at the end of the second movement, causing the pianist to put his face in his hands in dismay). The Florestan-dominated second movement, perhaps intentionally, came off as a thoughtless, empty display of so many pages of endless, martial dotted rhythms, as if to reveal the simple-minded vulgarity of the more forthright, active part of Schumann's personality.
Anne Midgette, Pollini Reveals a New Side Of Beethoven -- and Himself (Washington Post, October 31)
Allan Kozinn, Attacking the Piano With His Forcefulness, as Usual (New York Times, October 27)
John van Rhein, Pianist Pollini's a marathon man (Chicago Tribune, October 14)
Andrew Patner, A movable pianistic feast with Pollini, Taylor and Hill (Chicago Sun-Times, October 14)
Chopin is one of Pollini's best composers, and lately he has been recording and performing the less flashy works, which now seem to be coming to the fore of Pollini's musical life, like Eusebius in his Schumann. The four mazurkas of op. 33, from Pollini's newest recording, were lovely, poetic, understated, especially no. 4. Ending with a bang in the second scherzo (op. 31), Pollini gave it a more unusual, personal shape than one has noted of him before, with considerable rhythmic freedom. This seemed to reflect statements he has made about his approach to Chopin later in life, having noted that his early recordings of Chopin sound a little straight to him now. Some of the best playing was saved for the three encores, the first two of which he also offered as dessert two years ago. While the Revolutionary Etude (op. 10, no. 12) was powerful and sharp, it was the D-flat major nocturne (op. 27 no. 2) that most impressed, especially the silken bel canto roulades in the still masterful right hand (see embedded video below). A vibrant, vivid rendition of another etude (op. 10, no. 4) capped off the latest visit from Maurizio Pollini. How long until the next one?
The next concert from Washington Performing Arts Society will feature violinist Midori and pianist Robert MacDonald on Sunday (November 2, 4 pm) in an adventurous program of Schumann, Cage, Enescu, and Beethoven, in the Music Center at Strathmore.
Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin, Nocturne, op. 27, no. 2