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When the Gods Call... (Pollini at the Kennedy Center)

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L.v.Beethoven, Piano Sonatas opp.54, 57, 78, 90

On his Hamburg Steinway—tuned exactly to the Kennedy Center's Orchestra Hall—Maurizio Pollini descended upon the audience to give it Beethoven (corresponding to his latest DG release) and Chopin. Maestro Pollini, who first appeared in Washington 30 years ago with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is to my generation what Artur Schnabel must have been to my grandparents, and correspondingly I waited like a teenager, giddy and nervous to see my hero appear on stage. He waited... we waited... anticipation rose... turned into mild anxiety... where was he? I was reduced to a groupie waiting for his rock star, until the door opened and soft and gentle, as he smileth, he stepped onto the stage, headed to the gorgeous grand, and started with Beethoven's Sonata No. 24, op. 78, in F# major.

His hands just purled off notes in all shapes and forms. Larger clusters of notes were churned out with such precision that every note had the same value, length, and force, making it seem like a sort of mechanical toy, falling perfectly in place and giving coherence otherwise unachievable. Involved as he was, there was some humming on his part during a few excitable moments.

The inhumanly perfect Pollini showed in the opening of Beethoven's 23rd sonata, the "Appassionata" (op. 57, in F minor) that he is still earthbound, and the rare moment of a few mistakes occurred, seemingly against all odds with a man who can play for two hours and drop four notes. For all but those three, four notes, one could have issued the performance directly as a recording, so staggering were his command and expression. The performance of op. 57—polished for sure—had me, for better or worse, in a trance-like state and did, for whichever reasons, not quite match the excitement of its successor.

After the Beethoven (either making you want to pick up playing the piano or go home and burn it, if one already plays) Chopin's Nocturnes (nos. 1 and 2) came out to play. With a (non sequitur?) rubato of steel and his perpetuum mobile fingers, the lightness of a stalking panther, ready to pounce at any moment, Pollini sounded magnificent. While they were certainly not the most lyrical accounts (I have a big soft spot for Maria João Pires’ and Claudio Arrau’s accounts of the Nocturnes) and while his singing wasn't perfect, either, they were still rather gorgeous!

Ballade no. 3 had the heft that some players are afraid of giving to the "sickly Pole." With Pollini on (key)board, Chopin and Liszt move closer together, rather than being the imaginary opposite poles they probably never were. My innards were dancing with his perfectly balanced and weighed 15-note see-saw leaps in the work.

The now 62-year old Italian continued to mesmerize with the Chopin B-flat minor sonata (no. 2, op. 35), which was the final and perhaps the finest piece. Murmurs, undercurrents, and maybe the first time I enjoyed the work without any reservations: everything was in place. Flawless "attacca," one musical life slipping away, giving way to a newborn idea forcefully claiming reign... magically seamless shifts, and a plethora of other gawking adjectives on my part would well have described the performance. A New Orleans lilt marked the dark Marcia Funèbre and then there was an apotheosis. Pure light and delicacy with the shift of a key. Perhaps it isn't appropriate to remark upon "trills to die for" in a funeral march—but there, I did it—and the audience was spellbound.

The applause that started long before the last note stopped reverberating was and always is highly annoying, especially since this, if any performance, should and could have stunned the audience into a momentary silence. The encore that followed, Chopin again with his 15th prelude (the "Raindrop"), was brooding and sublime, delicious and almost frightening in its mood shifts. Philistines thought it more important to get to their cars and dinner reservations than listening to Pollini's second encore, one of Chopin's ballades. They left their seats, pushing me half out of the way: I have a few unpublishable words reserved for such audience members. Meanwhile Pollini's spider-fingers evoked all kinds of beautiful things from a grand piano that must count itself lucky.

A third encore followed—stunning, especially given the fact that Pollini is not prone to be liberal with his encores. Wow! This time it was one of the Nocturnes. And then, unbelievably, he gave another encore, Etude, op. 10, no. 8 at break-neck speed. He played like a motor running, well oiled and on all 10 cylinders. One wanted to say: "Children, don't try this at home: it's a professional driver on a closed course."

With that and much more applause by a thankful audience, an evening came to a close that was as magical as any I have witnessed as far as piano recitals are concerned. It was everything that is good about Pollini, nothing of what is less. The high lasted 24 hours, easily. In fact, I am still a bit dizzy. A better way to celebrate Ionarts' newborn daughter (courtesy of Charles and Mme. Downey) could not have been imagined. Congratulations!

available at Amazon Various, 20th Century

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From amid Stravinsky, Webern, Boulez, Prokoviev, (Petrushka movements, op.27 Variations, Piano Sonata #2, Piano Sonata #7 "Stalingrad"), pick especially the Stravinsky, because Maurizio Pollini's dozen or so minutes of the Petrushka movements are perhaps the best pianism ever caught on record—full stop.

available at Amazon F.Chopin, Preludes, Etudes, Polonaises
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This package of three, still full-priced, Pollini Chopin CDs is a wonderful deal. His Preludes may be coldish, not unlike Argerich (who gives you pianistic flaws galore on top of it in her 'one-take' recording from the 60s) and his Polonaises may not convert Rubinstein-lovers, but both are enormously well done and plenty exciting. But turn to his Etudes and be bowled over. It's like throwing a bowl of pearls down a marble staircase. Cristalline but with enough emotion, not a trace of effort—perfection that can intimidate but is more likely to awe and stun. Even if you already have Ashkenazy's recording from the 50s, this is a must-have.

available at Amazon R.Schumann, Kreisleriana, Gesang der Frühe
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Often Pollini is criticized for being too cold. This is one his (few) later recordings where he is actually burning with feeling. As far as Kreisleriana's are concerned, go no further. Do not cross STOP, do not collect...

available at Amazon Liszt, Sonata in B minor et al.
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Liszt with a dash of academia? Perfection pays in these works, and it's essential to hear them next to the Chopin.

Beethoven, Late Sonatas: I've waxed rhapsodic elsewhere about this recording: if you don't have it, you may not like (classical) music...

available at Amazon Schubert, Schumann,Wanderer-Fantasie, Fantasie op.17
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Finally, this staggering coupling. Want the big picture about these works? Want to go beyond the dismal key-pushing of a Lang Lang? Musicality and skill in an unholy combination—and highly, most enthusiastically recommended!

Additional Commentary by Charles T. Downey

I think that the author of this review (Tom Huizenga, At Pollini Recital, a Chill in the Air, October 29) in the Washington Post must have been at a different recital, where "one was awestruck by the design, but the heart of the music was missing." Maybe it's a fault, but I actually like performances that are intellectual, precise, and technically masterful, and that's why I have always idolized Maurizio Pollini since I first heard him. What he released on the stage Wednesday night (October 27—the evening after the birth of my daughter, which was an excellent coda to a miraculous day) was the closest thing to a perfect performance one may reasonably expect, not really marred but made more human by the tiny chinks in the Pollini armor that appeared in the "Appassionata."

In fact, Pollini's rigorous control of voicing, tone, dynamics, and color was what made the performance so fascinating, not just the fact that he could play extraordinarily difficult music at dazzling tempos and nearly flawlessly. That is what "heart" means for me, if it means anything at all in terms of a musical performance. Every moment was carefully considered, and the full orchestral range of Pollini's touch on the keyboard was put to use. The first of the three sonatas on the program, Beethoven's no. 24, was delicate, melodically shaded, charming, and calm, with only the short final movement showing off any technical flair.

If you program something like no. 23 ("Appassionata"), which is almost overplayed, you are obliged to say something with it that sets you apart. Pollini's basic approach, it seemed to me, was to play up the ultradramatic contrast of loud and soft to the greatest possible effect. The first theme, heavily pedaled, was the barest whisper of an outlined minor triad. I had a flashback to lessons with one of my teachers, a student of Alfredo Casella in her youth, who used to stop me every lesson after about 5 seconds of each piece with the words, "You must think about how you begin." Pollini has definitely thought about that. For the recapitulation of the first movement, Beethoven has his main F minor theme return over a pulsating dominant pedal point, which sort of telescopes the preparation of the recapitulation with the recapitulation itself. The 6/4 harmony that is created is one of the least stable sounds in the tonal vocabulary, a chord that wants to collapse into something else. The effect is meant to be unsettling, and I found Pollini's rendition of it to be tinged with menace, which was perfect. The coda was blindingly fast.

What struck me about the selection of Chopin works on the second half was that especially the third ballade and the sonata are excellent examples of the Romantic rethinking of what Beethoven did with thematic development and musical form. The two nocturnes were understated miniatures that showed off Pollini's mastery of multiple voicing in Chopin's intertwined melodic lines, unwoven like strands of gauze from a tiny spool. His rendition of the third ballade was one of the most dancelike I have ever heard, with the lilt that can make you feel weightless and thus in the mood for dancing.

The Chopin sonata is up there with the Liszt sonata as one of the two greatest examples of the Romantic rethinking of the classical sonata form. Near the end of the very fast conclusion to the first movement, in one of the most humorous and horrifying moments of my entire concert-going life, a water bottle rolled noisily down the left aisle for what seemed like ten minutes. The scherzo, also extremely rapid in tempo, was contrasted with a noticeably slower trio, which returns after the return of the scherzo (in a moment that recalls, among other things, the scherzo and trio of Beethoven's seventh symphony). For the first time, thanks to Pollini's masterfully voiced rendition of the 3rd movement funeral march, with its brass-like sections echoed by distant winds, I heard those low trills as the roll of martial tympani, which makes such good sense.

Needless to say, we greeted the chance to hear four Pollini encores, each more demanding than the last, with great enthusiasm. (Actually, we were shortchanged, since according to Keith Powers writing for the Boston Herald, at a recital with the same program in Boston, he played five encores there. Anthony Tommasini heard four after the slightly different program Pollini played in New York.) The second one he played here, Chopin's first ballade, in G minor, is perhaps more substantial than most encore fare, but it was truly enjoyable to hear Pollini play this piece that is alternately melancholy and manic. I extend my thanks to Neale Perl, President of the Washington Performing Arts Society, who introduced the recital by announcing that Pollini had scheduled only six concerts in four American cities. Thanks to WPAS for bringing him to our neck of the woods. CTD

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