CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

22.5.24

Remembering John Browning: A Short Portrait

available at Amazon
S.Barber,
Piano Concerto, Sy.1
J.Browning, L.Slatkin, St. Louis SO
RCA


available at Amazon
S.Prokofiev,
Piano Concertos
J.Browning, E.Leinsdorf, Boston SO
RCA


available at Amazon
S.Barber,
Complete Songs
C.Studer, T.Hampson, Emerson SQ4t, J.Browning
DG


available at Amazon
The Complete RCA Album Collection,

John Browning
Sony/RCA



Born on this day, May 23rd, in 1933, in Denver, pianist John Browning was a student of the famed Rosina Lhévinne, who taught the cream of the pianistic crop at the Institute of Musical Art (the Juilliard School) in New York. He was a direct contemporary of a North American crop of pianists that might be dubbed the ‘Tragic Five’, namely Julius Katchen (1926), Byron Janis, Leon Fleisher, and Gary Graffman (all 1928), and his classmate Van Cliburn (1934). These pianists all started with the very highest hopes and for one reason or other had their careers prematurely ended, curtailed, or fizzle. John Browning career, too, took a dip – caused by the strain of too many concerts and a subsequent decline in pianistic standards – when it should have been at its peak, but perhaps not sufficiently to make it a ‘Tragic Six’. By the time he played his last recital, at the National Gallery of Arts in 2002, which included a memorable Sonata in E-flat Minor by Samuel Barber, I attended ignorant of who he really was. Those in the know valued him for his “unremitting application and vast reserve of talent… [and] invariable dignity, without recourse to ballyhoo and banality.” (LA Times)

John Browning’s career was jumpstarted winning the Steinway Centennial Award in 1954 and the Leventritt Competition the next year, and taking the second prize behind Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1956, the prize won by fellow Americans Leon Fleisher before him and Malcolm Frager after him. The same year he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, which is where Samuel Barber heard him play and was much impressed with his great technique. So impressed, indeed, that Barber wrote difficulties into his piano concerto, with Browning in mind, that were beyond what was humanly possible to play. Browning, in an interview with NPR, recalled Barber taking him to Vladimir Horowitz, to have a look at the score. Horowitz browsed through it and said: “The young man iz right, this iz impossible to play”—whereupon Barber toned the demands down a little.

John Browning’s recitals notably included much Bach and Scarlatti, composers that were not then considered repertoire staples until the landmark recordings of Gould’s Goldberg Variations (1955) and Horowitz’s Scarlatti (1964). But he will be foremost remembered as a champion of Barber. Browning premiered Barber’s piano concerto under Erich Leinsdorf in 1962, and for his second recording of the Piano Concerto, with Leonard Slatkin, he won his first Grammy. Recording the complete solo works of Barber garnered him his second Grammy. In his surprisingly small discography, much of which is hiding on minor labels, his Prokofiev Concertos with Erich Leinsdorf on RCA also stand out. John Browning died on January 26th, 2003, of heart failure.




25.4.24

Dip Your Ears: No. 275 (Szymanowski's Music for Violin and Piano)



available at Amazon
K.Szymanowski
Music for Violin & Piano
Bruno Monteiro, João Paulo Santos
Brilliant, 2015

available at Amazon
K.Szymanowski
Music for Violin & Piano
Duo Brüggen-Plank
Genuin, 2017

Szymanowski Due Dilligence


Here are two releases of Szymanowski’s works for violin and piano that feature neither big names nor famous labels. This is very inconvenient, because instead of being able to make up one’s mind ahead of time, it requires close listening. Fortunately, the composer more than merits this exposure and so do these two very different approaches.

Bruno Monteiro is more direct and explosive in his approach; Marie Radauer-Plank has a more lyrical, lighter way with the music, with the notes separated further without being slower. It’s mobile (she) vs. direct (he). She: A slightly emaciated violin sound, dryly recorded, and spritely. He: Round, bold, rather resonant (especially the piano), in slightly wooly sound and his violin with an emphatic, viola-esque sound. The combination on Brilliant features softer, velvety pianism courtesy of João Paulo Santos, while the Duo on Genuin is more intense and tight in the finale of “Harnesie”, despite over-all more relaxed tempo. Henrike Brüggen plays absolutely marvelously in the Nocturne – as adroitly as soothing. Similarly, Radauer-Plank displays a great beauty and purity in her tone where Bruno Monteiro offers a broader, hazier, arguably more sultry sound as an alternative.

If you still can’t decide which might be more suitable to your Szymanowski-preferences, go listen to Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien on Hyperion to make up your mind.




14.4.24

Simon Godwin's modern-dress 'Macbeth' comes to Washington

Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Photo: Marc Brenner

The demand for the Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Macbeth has reportedly been off the charts. Simon Godwin, artistic director of STC since 2019, directed this staging in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and London, and it makes its final stop here. In each city, the venue has not been a traditional theater, but a larger building like a warehouse, adapted to the purpose. In Washington, theater-goers must make their way to the former campus of Black Entertainment Television headquarters in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast. The cast, starring Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma, has remained the same in each location.

To reach the stage, viewers pass through a room made to look like a modern war zone, with the wreck of a bombed-out car and the glow of fires. Even before the show begins, actos costumed like soldiers patrol the space. The action unfolds not in medieval Scotland, but in a 21st-century location torn apart by warfare. Through the sometimes overwhelming sound system, which surrounds the audience, the sonic boom of jet fighters and explosions punctuates the evening (sound design by Christopher Shutt). Macbeth and the other thanes and soldiers wore military fatigues and tactical vests and helmets while in the field. In the court scenes, they wore elegant gowns, suits, and dress military uniforms with a faintly fascist edge, at times reminiscent of the updated Richard III starring Ian McKellen from over twenty years ago.
The technical bells and whistles are impressive, but other than the battle scenes at the opening and close, the Scottish play is really about private ambitions: it hardly matters where or when the war is happening. The adaptation by Emily Burns streamlines some parts of the play without removing most of the best parts. The three witches (Lucy Mangan, Danielle Fiamanya, and Lola Shalam) appear out of one of several loud explosions, looking like victims of an urban bombing mission who have narrowly escaped death and bear the psychic trauma of it. Bright lights often assist their covert entrances and exits, as Godwin's staging walks a fine line between the witches being supernatural powers or just shell-shocked ghosts.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Ralph Fiennes plays the title role older and a little more seasoned and wise. His Macbeth has been worn down by age, as well as by the demanding nature of his wife, played with vehement force by Indira Varma. Younger than her husband, Lady Macbeth drives him where his ambition might not have taken him. She spurs him beyond the life af a sort of dutiful also-ran in the service of Duncan to grasp at the throne after hearing the strange prophecies of the women harmed by his own military exploits.

If the supernatural business is downplayed a bit (no Hecate appears in the final prophecy scene), the physical elements of violence are amplified: much blood from the murder of Duncan, and even more from the onstage killing of Banquo, among the most graphic stagings in recent memory. Steffan Rhodri's Banquo proved a highlight, an older veteran of many battles by Macbeth's side, with the grim humor to show for it. Ben Turner had the most affecting moments of the evening, drawing out the paternal grief of Macduff as he learned of the murder of his family.

Macbeth runs through May 5. A filmed version will be released in theaters starting on May 2.

3.4.24

Thoughts on Thoughts About Klaus Mäkelä

A Word or Two on the (Negative) Reaction to Klaus Mäkelä’s Appointment in Chicago

The Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä is 28 and has just been named the next Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, starting with the 2027/28 season. When he does, the current MD, Riccardo Muti, will be 86. As classical music knows all too well, there’s nothing wrong with old age per se, but a bit of young blood surely can’t hurt. You would think.

However, there has been considerable opining, grumbling, and bloviating, following this announcement, mostly because Klaus Mäkelä, who is currently the chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and music director of the Orchestre de Paris, will also take on the role of chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2027. “Too young!” are the cries. “Too hyped!” goes the faux indignation on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s behalf. “Spread too thin”, weigh in the armchair experts. And, as a most tediously predictable sideshow, every 5th comment on social media will invariably be: “Not a woman! Shame. Shame!” (A different topic for another day.)

The aggregator/master click-baiter Norman Lebrecht goes all insinuation and pessimism in “Chicago Ends up Second City, Maybe Third”, the usual hodge-podge of three snarky, substance-less sentences and four lazy quotes. He refers to the conductor in question as “frequent-flier Klaus Mäkelä”. Newsflash: Every conductor is a frequent flier, these days; the slight comes out only when convenient. Then comes the original content: “Chicago is going to have to get used to waiting in line for its music director. They won’t like that. With Riccardo Muti (pictured), Chicago had bragging rights. Now it has to beg and borrow its shared time, like a telephone user in distant memory.”

Says who? Sharing a conductor with another orchestra isn’t new. Not for any orchestra, and certainly not for the Chicago Symphony. Throughout his time as Chicago’s music director, the orchestra somehow survived George Solti also being music director at Covent Garden, of the Orchestre de Paris, and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim was the head of the Berlin State Opera (a more labor-intensive task than being the music director of a philharmonic orchestra) for all but the first year of his Chicago tenure. Double tenures are not unusual, they are the norm and have been, for well over half a century. Mariss Jansons was never head of the Concertgebouw (RCO) without also being the music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Haitink was head of the LPO for twelve years, allawhile running...

2.4.24

Critic’s Notebook: An Odd Liederabend from Goerne and Kissin


Also reviewed for Die Presse: Ein Liederabend, bei dem vieles auf der Strecke blieb

available at Amazon
R. Schumann,
Dichterliebe, Liederkreis
M.Goerne, V.Ashkenazy
Harmonia Mundi


available at Amazon
J. Brahms,
4 Serious Songs, 4 Songs op.32
M.Goerne, C.Eschenbach
Harmonia Mundi


A Walrus in Love

The trick to turn a Liederabend from a connoisseur’s event into a big-ticket item, appears to be the addition of a pianist superstar to the singer in question. At the Musikverein’s Golden Hall, on March 13th, the magic ingredient to bolster Matthias Goerne’s already considerable draw was Evgeny Kissin. It makes sense, too, because in theory it’s much more interesting to hear, what two veritable artists come up with, as part of their collaboration, rather than simply having a singer be followed by an accompanist. I mean, no one goes to a concert to hear Helmut Deutsch – and few singers form as organic a duo with their ivory-partner, as do/does GerhaherHuber (one word)™.

In practice, that didn’t quite work out on this occasion. For starters, the Golden Hall was decidedly not built for Lieder-recitals. When Lieder-singers hit the big-time, they almost invariably become the victim of their own success, location-wise. And yes, there were smile-inducing moments from Kissin, such as his brawny-pawed opening of Robert Schumann’s “Am Strand”. But for the most part, there seemed little input from him… or if there was, it didn’t appear to be picked up on by Goerne. (Certainly his understanding with Christoph Eschenbach as his pianist, for example, suggested more of a give and take, both, on record and live.)

Also: The whole evening was full of mannerisms galore. Goerne can barrel through a song and braw like a donkey. And a lot of fun it sometimes is. On this occasion, a red-faced Goerne danced as if on tippy-toes, contorting himself, and reminded vaguely of a lovelorn walrus. Much of Dichterliebe, for example, was purred in honeyed tones but mumbled in such nasal tones, that it had to be an interpretative choice. Albeit one I did not comprehend. Half the text was impossible to understand and sounded more French than German. This approach was interrupted occasionally, such as for the blistering “Die Rose, die Lilie”, or in stentorian turns for the last of the nine Brahms op.32 songs, “Wie bist du, meine Königin”. Here, Kissin, hunched over the keyboard as though he had forgotten his reading glasses at home, provided for tantalizing contrast with his tone, ringing out clear as a bell, and his lullaby-esque take on it.

But that was too little, too late. Too much text fell by the wayside. Whatever was left had a strangely impersonal quality about it and was – and this can’t just be blamed on Brahms – somewhat brittle and wearisome.



31.3.24

Critic’s Notebook: Daniel Harding brings a touch of Sweden to the Konzerthaus


Also reviewed for Die Presse: Hugo Alfvén muss man entdeckt haben: Hinreißende Schweden-Romantik im Konzerthaus

available at Amazon
Hugo Alfvén,
Complete Symphonies, Suites & Rhapsodies
var. Orch., Niklas Willén
Naxos


available at Amazon
G. Mahler,
Orchestral Songs
C.Gerhaher, K.Nagano, OSMontreal
Sony


Swedish bonbon and Gerhaherisms

The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s gig at the Vienna Konzerthaus was notable for its inclusion of Hugo Alfvén on the program, and Christian Gerhaher (who loves working with Harding) singing Mahler’s Rückert songs. Less attractive on paper perhaps was Also sprach Zarathustra lurking on the back of the program, which, of course, features one of the most memorable openings in all of classical music… followed by thirty minutes of tedium. But “Strauss” sells tickets, is fun, and already in the repertoire of the orchestra, whereas something really cool, romantic, and Swedish – say, the Viola Concerto of Allan Petterson or a Symphony by him or by Erland von Koch, Wilhelm Stenhammar, or Kurt Atterberg – would admittedly have been box office poison. Sånt är livet.

Incidentally, it was a pretty good Zarathustra, that Harding and his Swedes (he’s been their MD since 2007) delivered. Listening closely, you could hear how Strauss, in 1896, opens almost all the doors to his future works: In the octet of first desks (very nicely played!) we have premonitions of the Capriccio Sextet. Further down the road, there are glimmers of the Alpine Symphony, in those somewhat meandering, intertwining musical strands. And for the “Tanzlied”, a waltz on near-infinite loop, Harding mercifully took the reins tight, as a result of which the precision suffered, but at considerable benefit to the work.

The opening Alfvén (who should, but unfathomably does not, have a chapter in Surprised by Beauty) was En skärgårdssägen, op.20. Naturally the first-ever performance in the Konzerthaus, much like a visiting Viennese orchestra would probably be the first, if they played a Robert Fuchs Serenade on a visit to Stockholm. As the ear clamors for familiar references in this 1904 sea-themed tone poem about the group of islets outside of Stockholm, it finds them in Debussy during the impressionistic heaves, in Zemlinsky when the flame begins to lick in the strings, or even in Wagner, when the brass and timpani get going.

In between Hugo and Richard, it was Gerhaher to impress with his usual, unparalleled ‘intoned parlando’ in the Mahler. The fact that you have to listen closely, sometimes, when he drops the color from his voice (one of several trademark Gerhaherisms), is easily put up with; in fact, it probably enhances the experience – though Harding and his lustily playing orchestra didn’t exactly help out, either. The cries of nocturnal pain in “Um Mitternacht” were harrowing, and “Liebst du um Schönheit” was, interestingly, stripped of any overt cynicism. Mahler didn’t know it, when he composed it, but he custom tailored “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to Gerhaher’s style. Hearing him suffer, while simultaneously exposing the vanity in the lines “Nor am I all that much concerned / If she should think me dead”, by not so much intoning rather than de-toning them, was as touching as anything.



24.3.24

In Memoriam Aribert Reimann: His Lear in Frankfurt (2008)

In memory of Aribert Reimann, who passed away on March 13th, nine days after his 88th birthday, I post this hitherto unpublished review of the 2008 Frankfurt Opera premiere of his most important stage work, Lear, in Keith Warner's production. Re-listening to Medea recently, I found myself taken aback by the sheer ugliness of Reimann's music, the "dead-on-arrival avant-garde hideousness", found it to be "joyless, deliberately ungainly music, 30-years behind its time when it premiered in 2010", and how it was "music to feel clever, by pretending to like it." Part of it will have been the lack of visible drama, which, as I suggest below, is important, possibly essential to make anything of this music at all. And, in Lear's defense, it came more than 30 years before Medea. This prompted a brief exchange with a colleague who thought (and wrote), already around the time of the premiere of Lear, that the opera was overrated - to which a critical outcry predictably followed promptly. True: Not all music that is difficult and first appears ungainly is The-Emperor's-New-Clothes-Music. And yet, there is a line, eventually, for each of us, that we would not cross for purely musical purposes. Where is that line and is it important? These are all thoughts that came back up, re-reading my 16-year old review, written with the milk of human kindness still sloshing liberally within me. Perhaps partly not to look the dunce. And partly because it's not like I didn't in enjoy the evening some way. Anyway, here it is.

available at Amazon
Aribert Reimann,
Lear
Wolfgang Koch et al.
Frankfurt Opera, S.Weigle
Oehms


available at Amazon
Aribert Reimann,
Medea
Frankfurt Opera, E.Nielsen
Oehms


available at Amazon
Aribert Reimann,
Lear
Fischer-Dieskaus et al.
Bavarian State Opera, G.Albrecht
DG


available at Amazon
Reimann-Mendelssohn/Schumann,
…und soll es Tod bedeuten
Song arrangements & SQ4t#3
Petersen Quartet, C.Schäfer
Capriccio



Gabor Halasz called Aribert Reimann’s 1978 opera Lear “the great music-theater achievement of the [70s], probably the most important opera since [Bernd Alois] Zimmermann’s The Soldiers. The work’s premiere in Munich – a Jean-Pierre Ponelle production, conducted by Gerd Albrecht and with the work’s initiator Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Dieskau’s wife Julia Varady as Cordelia – was a smashing success with critics and audiences alike – even conservative ears.

Dieskau first suggested the topic to Reimann in 1968 and nudged him to pursue it. What Reimann didn’t know until long after he finished his Lear, is that Dieskau also pitched the idea of a Lear-opera to Britten who, however, chose to compose Death in Venice, instead.

How much of Lear’s success depended on Dieskau’s participation and Ponelle’s inspired, beautiful production was once again, for the 21st time, put to the test in the Frankfurt Opera’s season-opening premiere of their Keith Warner production on September 28th. Not very much, as it turns out, as long as the theatrical direction is as extraordinary as it was in Frankfurt.

Lear's effectiveness is critically dependent on the theatrical element and makes a primarily theatrical impression – not unlike Henze’s Bassarids, but without the latter’s relatively luscious grand operatic musical moments. Lear is essentially theater music (a hint of Maurizio Kagel), and its considerable success abroad has undoubtedly been due to the use of the respective vernacular. Like the San Francisco production (where Thomas Stewart took the title role) which used the translation of Desmond Clayton.

The music alone is dense and difficult stuff; wild and loud plenty and even grating at times. Suppose you only read Claus H. Henneberg’s analysis of it: You’d have to imagine a series of shrieking vocal parts and jarring string and brass chord clusters, one piled upon another – interrupted only occasionally with the tone rows that represent Cordelia and Edgar, or the string quartet that accompanies the Fool’s simple songs.

What is true enough in theory gets a life of its own on stage. Even if the tone-rows don’t obviously reveal the relationship between Cordelia and Edgar as being the sole characters aiming at a common, noble goal, the semi-tone steps of their tone rows (Edgar’s is developed out of Cordelia’s by switching the first and last six-note sequences; see below) are in marked and notable contrast to the shrill sounds of Goneril and Regan. Clusters of sounds may dominate much of the score, but since the music works as support for the theatrical element and dramatizes the story with sound, it isn’t (necessarily) perceived as unnecessarily spiky and brutal. Indeed, it was astounding how vividly it depicted the various moods and actions on stage – madness, wistful longing, and of course wickedness and massive brutality. The 30-year-old music, still sounding more modern than much that is composed these days, doesn’t aim to make it easy for the audience, it aims to be true to

23.3.24

Maurizio Pollini, an Appreciation

Maurizio Pollini was perhaps the most important figure in my musical upbringing that I never knew.

Twenty years ago, on October 27th, 2004, I walked down the aisle of the Kennedy Center’s Orchestra Hall with two* (!) press tickets in my hand, headed towards perfect seats for a Maurizio Pollini recital that Eileen Andrews, then with the Washington Performing Arts Society, had unconscionably handed provided. Row 18 or something, piano left – the first time I had requested review tickets for a “proper” concert where the tickets cost money – an unaffordable sum at a time when a sandwich was a luxury. And I remember keenly thinking to myself: “I will never stop pretending to be a critic!”

available at Amazon
Lv.Beethoven,
The Late Piano Sonatas
Maurizio Pollini
DG (1975/77)


available at Amazon
Lv.Beethoven,
Late Piano Sonatas 101 & 106
Maurizio Pollini
DG (2021/22)


available at Amazon
Lv.Beethoven,
The Piano Concertos
Maurizio Pollini, Berlin Phil, C.Abbado
DG


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven,
Complete Piano Sonatas
Maurizio Pollini
DG


available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart,
Piano Concertos K.453 & 467
Maurizio Pollini, WPh
DG


available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart,
Piano Concertos K.414 & 491
Maurizio Pollini, WPh
DG


available at Amazon
Stravinsky, Prokofiev et al.,
Petrouchka, Sonata No.7...)
Maurizio Pollini
DG


available at Amazon
F.Chopin,
Etudes opp.10 & 25
Maurizio Pollini
DG


available at Amazon
F.Schubert,
The 3 late Piano Sonatas & 3 Pieces.
Maurizio Pollini
DG



I had picked Maurizio Pollini for this attempt at getting review tickets, not only because I wanted to see if that racket might work – but because Maurizio Pollini had long been in my personal Hall of Fame (where Eileen joined him that day). It was his disc of the late Beethoven Sonatas (subject of one of the earliest Dip Your Ears reviews) that hooked me. I innocently picked up in a Best Buy in Fargo, ND, and brought back to my college room. Even played from the rickety boom box, it was an overwhelming experience. The granitic perfection opened my ears not only to Beethoven sonatas, but to an extend to late Beethoven and the fascination of piano sonatas altogether. I imprinted so hard on these performances that it’s sometimes been difficult to properly appreciate anyone else’s opp. 106 or 111.

Later came his Beethoven Piano Concertos, the second recording with Abbado, now with the Berlin Philharmonic, which fascinated me equally, if, alas, less momentously. Years went by until – it would have been in 2004 – I ‘discovered’ his Chopin Études at Tower Records, took them home, and marveled at the sound that came forth. Opus 10/1: Like marbles rushing down a marble staircase. So clean, so precise and pristine, you could hear every note and there wasn’t an ounce of fat or sentimentality anywhere in sight.

These recordings – and the one of the Stravinsky Petrouchka movements – contributed as much to the reputation of Pollini as an ingenious perfectionist of unparalleled technical standards as they did to the stereotype that he was necessarily a cool, unemotional pianist. True, his clear-as-a-brook, granitic playing cleansed the treacle from many romantic piece and offered stunning x-ray views into contemporary works. But this did not always bear out in concert or on record, where he was well capable of considerable warmth. Case in point his (relatively) late live Mozart from Vienna, which is “understated, sunny, and genial… sophisticated in its simplicity…, [even reminiscent] of Keith Jarrett’s Mozart playing, but with ‘warmer’ results…” (MusicWeb review) The days of being a left-wing political firebrand (“Champagne Socialist” was a less kind, if apt, moniker) had by then long been over, but the passion for the music burned unabated.

The recordings also set an almost impossible standard for live performances – those of others but also his own. In the recital in 2004, he still held up to that standard. Two years later, at a recital at Strathmore, he didn’t quite, but still moved and impressed:
Still, even at the least involving, the marvelous soft notes – never shy-sounding – demanded respect… The Ballade No. 1 in G Minor had been bumped up from encore status, last year, to the main program – and it suits Pollini’s rigor, his iron-frame rubato much better. Those who like his style in Chopin (it’s not the leaves that shake on the tree, the whole trunk is slowly moving), are invariably fascinated by his approach.
More recently, I wrote for Forbes.com and LISTEN Magazine about his Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle, a project that he took 39 years to complete:
Beethoven Sonata cycles used to be monuments. Milestones. For a pianist today, a Beethoven Sonata cycle has become more of an ultimate business card, which is why we see so many of them. But one cycle issued last year is still a monument amid business cards: Maurizio Pollini’s. After four decades in the making, it has every bit the feel of a classic, like Kempff, Arrau, Backhaus, or Brendel. That's partly because Pollini is one of the last active titans of the ivories, and partly because the set is anchored around his towering, legendary 1975/77 recording of the last sonatas. His Hammerklavier is a pianistic Matterhorn, imposing and awesome. Thomas Mann spent a whole chapter in Dr. Faustus on op.111. Listening to Pollini, you wonder why not an entire book.
Somewhere in between, I actually met the man for a brief second, crossing the floor of an empty Philharmonic Hall in Munich, during or before or after rehearsals. Overcoming the (appropriate!) reticence, I approached my idol, pitched some awkward idea and made an even equally lame compliment, which was met with courteous disinterest. On greeting or parting I shook his hand, quite seemingly against his will, but he was too polite not to go through the motions and put his hand in mine, where it briefly lied, like an anesthetized squid. In my defense: I felt an acute and lasting sense of shame and remorse.

I last saw Maurizio Pollini at his final penultimate recital in Vienna (review Wiener Zeitung), in the summer of 2021, at the Musikverein, within weeks of hearing Daniel Barenboim play the same hall. This battle of the dinosaurs, not that it was billed as such, made for instructive listening. That the latter performed Beethoven-as-Bruckner was one thing. One can like it or not. Mistakes in the heat of the passion are also one thing; only curmudgeons begrudge ’em. But the visibly – or seemingly – unmotivated, lazy sloppiness was hard to forgive. Even when you almost knew that you could expect as little. Barenboim made every indication of not giving a damn, played through his recital, and collected the rapturous applause he knew he was going to get, no matter what he did.

Further reading: Andrew Ford, "The clarity of Maurizio Pollini" (Inside Story, 2017).


Quite different Maurizio Pollini, born in Milan, on January 5th, 1942, and just ten months older than Barenboim. When he had given his first recital at the Musikverein, 60 years prior, my mom was still in high school. Now – in '21 – he still attacked every note with the same intensity and expectation of perfection as he had so long been able to do, unwilling to make any concessions. But in several places, like Schumann’s op.18 Fantasie or Chopin’s B minor Sonata, the hands no longer did his bidding in the way he wanted and he grumbled along, and every slip seemed to upset him. The tender moments were breath-taking, still, even if not everything was, strictly speaking, at the highest pianistic level anymore. And then for the Berceuse op.57 and the Polonaise Héroïque, it was back: That absolutely even touch, where every note, no matter which finger takes it, is perfectly even.

The ovations were the ovations not just for that night, but a veritable lifetime achievement award. The audience, myself appreciatingly among them, well knew that this might have been the last time they heard a legend live – and it was. He may have heard his last applause, but Maurizio will live on in the gratitude of music-lovers for a long, long time. Mille grazie per tutto, Maestro.






P.S. If you want to hear Pollini perform Stockhausen's Klavierstück X, you can/should do so here. No matter how you feel about the music or Stockhausen in general, it is an amazing feat and something to behold.

* With me was ionarts' Charles Downey, who thus celebrated the birth of his first kid, earlier in the day.