The Pollini Project – Stockhausen, Schumann, Chopin
Royal Festival Hall
May 25, 2011
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück VII
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück IX
Robert Schumann: Concert sans orchestre (First version of Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.14)
Fryderyk Chopin: Prélude in C sharp minor, Op.45
Fryderyk Chopin: Barcarolle in F sharp, Op.60
Fryderyk Chopin: Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52
Fryderyk Chopin: Berceuse in D flat, Op.57
Fryderyk Chopin: Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor, Op.31
More years ago than I care to remember (OK, about ten), Edward Moore, my piano teacher at university, told me he used to be a great fan of Maurizio Pollini, but had grown disenchanted with him because he thought his playing had become completely dry, overly safe and devoid of emotion. Perhaps because he was by far the best teacher I’d ever had, I took this opinion seriously and allowed it to influence my perception of Pollini ever after, remaining a devout sceptic despite his evidently immense popularity. Even when I was working at the Royal Festival Hall, struggling to cope with the amount of CD sales generated by a signing after one of his concerts, I remained unmoved. Now, in the middle of the ‘Pollini Project’ (i.e. a series of five concerts spread over a period of as many months, rather than his usual one per year), it seems a good time finally to attempt to form my own opinion of him as he is today, perhaps eventually investigating his back catalogue and attempting to uncover any discernible process of change in his playing.
The Project is intended as an overarching look at the great variety of piano repertoire from the Baroque period onwards, though as it consists entirely of pieces Pollini has previously played in London there are certain chronological gaps – after an opening Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier came programmes of the last three sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert respectively, and now two concerts combining Romantic repertoire and 20th-century pieces. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Pollini’s reputation as a champion of contemporary composers, having unjustly assumed he would be conservative in such matters, and was struck by this quote from the programme notes: talking about Boulez and Stockhausen, Pollini says “I would say composers of today, but it’s no longer today, it’s history”. Now that Stockhausen is dead and Boulez in his mid-eighties, his point that audiences should by now have adjusted to the demands of new musical languages is extremely pertinent.
Pollini apparently believes that the London audience is one of the ones that comes the closest to fulfilling this ideal of according equal value to all types of repertoire, no matter how difficult, and praises the amount of younger people coming to London concerts. This concert in particular appeared to bear him out, with many of those same youngsters occupying the onstage seats arranged in an arc behind and around the piano (though there was a completely empty block on the right of the stage where the maestro would have been invisible), and it probably was this group who were most appreciative of the opening Stockhausen Klavierstücke. may have been due not only to the open-mindedness of youth, but also the fact that they were in a better position than most in the hall to hear properly the harmonic overtones left ringing for a long time that are such an important feature of these pieces. I was sitting about halfway back, and didn’t feel that I heard anything like the intended effect in the RFH’s dead acoustic. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the performances, especially of Klavierstück IX, which I was introduced to those long years ago at a concert given by my university tutor Peter O’Hagan. Pollini’s handling of the piece—in particular its opening, featuring many repetitions of the same chord in a manner that might seem wilfully designed to annoy many people—was less aggressive than I remember my tutor’s being, as though perhaps he wanted to clearly demonstrate his reverence for this music and show that he wasn’t just sticking in any old ‘modern’ piece for the sake of it.
Surprisingly, Pollini used sheet music and a page turner for the Stockhausen pieces, and quite often appeared actually to be reading from the music rather than merely having it there as a safety net if the memory failed. Although no doubt just a function of ingrained prejudices about how a concert pianist should behave (probably instilled in me, ironically, by Edward Moore), it was somehow oddly relieving when after the first break for applause and bows he returned to the stage alone and musicless for the Schumann Concert.It was here that I started to understand my old teacher’s reservations about Pollini’s playing. The first movement seemed simply too reticent for an unemotionally uninhibited composer like Schumann. However, the irritation generated by an unwanted bout of applause when he paused after this movement to mop his brow may have somehow given Pollini an additional spur, as he then appeared to grow more and more into the piece, becoming fully emotionally involved by the end.
During the interval I thought a little about the striking visual elements of this concert. Besides the aforementioned seating on the stage and Pollini’s autograph model Steinway piano (his name in gold on the side, like Roger Federer’s tennis shoes), there’s the man himself. Pollini is not quite seventy, but appears older due to his distinctive stooped head and slightly shuffling gait. He places his stool quite a long way back and sits close to the edge of it as he leans into the piano. This all very much contributes to the ‘revered elder statesman’ quality that he and in particular the Southbank Centre are obviously very keen to project, and which by the end of the evening I’m reminded that the audience is very much in sympathy with. Not that they’re wrong to think so, of course.
The all-Chopin second half was a mixed, though mostly positive, bag. I found the C sharp minor Prélude and Barcarolle a bit stiff, and was at first not hopeful for the rest. From then on I thought the remainder of the programme was much better, its mixture of lyricism and drama far more in keeping with Pollini’s description of Chopin in the programme as “A Frenchman, but with a very strong Slavic element”. Just before the start of the second half a change to the running order had been announced, placing the Ballade before the Berceuse rather than as the penultimate item; as it turned out, this was so that Pollini could take a short break in the middle of the set after an item of appropriate magnitude rather than the smaller-scale Berceuse, but by then his playing had certainly earned him this right. Following the Scherzo came two encores of yet more Chopin, the Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2, and the Revolutionary Étude, but despite a vast and continuing ovation there was no third.
So how right was my teacher about Maurizio Pollini? Obviously the evidence of one concert can’t possibly provide a definitive answer, and not every musician can or should be a spontaneous, heart-on-sleeve extrovert (not to mention that not all music necessarily suits that approach). On the basis of this evening I would agree that Pollini can be overly emotionally cool at times for my taste, but perhaps that is simply a likely byproduct of his clearly very thoughtful musicianship (in light of which I find it very appropriate that there were no audible mistakes at any point in the concert, which is certainly not always the case with even the greatest soloists). I await with great eagerness the final Pollini Project concert in late June, after which I can perhaps make a fairer and more detailed judgement.