Chopin Compilation (older recordings)
Op. 33-36, 38
Scherzi / Berceuse / Barcarolle
Not surprisingly, for the Chopin bicentenary year, Pollini has been playing a lot of Chopin. He played a recital to celebrate Chopin's birthday at Royal Festival Hall, as well as a series of three Chopin recitals at Carnegie Hall this spring. As he did for his most recent Chopin recording, Pollini's program this evening is a group of pieces presented almost entirely in opus number series, from the two nocturnes of op. 55 (also programmed on his 2006 recital) to the two nocturnes of op. 62. Skipping only the set of mazurkas of op. 59, it includes the third mazurka of op. 56, the berceuse and barcarolle (op. 57 and 60), the third sonata (op. 58 -- he played no. 2 on his 2004 recital), and the Polonaise-fantasie in A-flat Major, op. 61. For score study, the best set of online scores is available from Chopin's First Editions Online.
Looking back over our reviews of Pollini's recitals in Washington, both sides of his performing personality are evident, both the Apollonian perfection in the most technically demanding works, where frankly his pianistic imagination is the most engaged, and the later turn toward greater rhythmic freedom. In his 2008 recital, for example, he played the four mazurkas of op. 33 and op. 31 scherzo, giving the latter especially "a more unusual, personal shape than one has noted of him before, with considerable rhythmic freedom." As he said in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, Pollini has lived an entire life with the works of Chopin: “My love for the music of Chopin has become greater and greater for years, perhaps because I understand better this music." While he admits that "Chopin is an innately seductive composer," what makes a Pollini performance so great is that it goes beyond that attractive surface to something more profound.
This is especially true of the really difficult works, where Pollini's technical perfection allows the listener to hear all kinds of subtle voicings within those amassed textures. The 2008 recording was distinguished especially for its roiling performance of the second ballade, its keyboard-traversing rages crystalline and clear, but no less impulsive for that. The best live performance of any Chopin work by Pollini to reach my ears remains the second sonata, on the 2004 recital, especially for its color-filled funeral march, orchestrated as it were for "brass-like sections echoed by distant winds, [the] low trills as the roll of martial tympani, which makes such good sense." This piece is on the 2008 Chopin recording, too, and while it is not exactly the same performance, it contains many of the same ideas and that often crushing Pollini booming sound. I have read somewhere that Pollini studies as many sources as he can find, once discovering a section of a piece in which Chopin had revised the exact voicing of a chord several times before settling on a finished version. That gives an idea of just how precisely Pollini thinks about his interpretation.
Looking back to some of the older recordings for a few of the pieces on the program tonight, we come to the op. 57 Berceuse. This was made during the height of Pollini's technical powers, and the glistening sound of the endless roulades and runs, purled off so effortlessly, is breathtaking. The piece is meditative and static, an elaboration of a constantly repeated I-V7 harmonic pattern, and while Pollini stretches the tempo in a few places, he mostly just lets the piece unfold itself. The same is true of the op. 60 Barcarolle, with its left-hand ostinato of quarter-eighth-quarter notes, the right-hand flights of fancy alternately dreamy and ecstatic. The op. 61 Polonaise-fantasie has devastatingly accurate right-hand runs in thirds, beautifully voiced octaves and parallel chords, and flawless triple and quadruple trills. The third sonata is no less admirable technically, as in the high-flying A section of the middle-movement scherzo and the agitated fourth movement, but singing lines like the second theme of the first movement and the E major section of the slow movement stand out even more for their lyric beauty.
Chopin, Barcarolle, op. 60, M. Pollini