The Pollini Project – Chopin, Debussy, Boulez
Royal Festival Hall
June 28th, 2011
Fryderyk Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28
Claude Debussy: from Préludes Book 1:
III Le vent dans la plaine
IV ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’
VI Des pas sur le neige
VII Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest
X La cathédrale engloutie
Pierre Boulez: Piano Sonata No. 2
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Lion in winter. Concert audiences now whoop and whistle for their artists, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this affects Maurizio Pollini. At sixty-nine, he has been before the public for fifty years, ever since winning the Chopin International Competition in 1960 at the age of eighteen. His white hair is wispy on top (this is art, so let’s call it an aureole). He still walks briskly to the piano and hits the first keys with unnerving alacrity. When Rosa Ponselle made her London debut, the veteran diva Nellie Melba gave her a friendly warning: nothing but nothing could induce British audiences to give a standing ovation. Dame Nellie was reportedly quite put out when her young American rival earned a standing ovation at Covent Garden every night. Pollini earns the same, even when he ends his program, as he did last night, with Boulez’s fearsome Piano Sonata no. 2. One way to insure that posterity will consider you a fool is to mock modern music, but in the annals of unapproachable and uningratiating works, the Boulez sonata must attain a kind of summa.
To the innocent ear this youthful exercise in “total serialism” consists of four movements filled with enough notes for two quite difficult sonatas, piled in dense layers to be played at the speed of Formula One racing; technically there are 37 changes of tempo, not all hectic. Even Pollini, who has recorded the work, needed the printed score and a page turner. I can’t imagine what the audience heard before it erupted in cheers. Just after the war, when Boulez was a student in Messiaen’s composition class, he first encountered Schoenberg’s music with a shock, yet quickly decided that the destruction of conventional musical forms had not gone far enough. You could fill a music encyclopedia with the elements that he excludes from this piece (theme, variation, melody, introduction, development, recapitulation, coda, fugue, canon, and key signature come to mind). By comparison, Berg and Schoenberg leave easy perches for the ear through echoes of a Viennese waltz, oompah military band, and the like. It can be said that Pollini played with such clarity and authority that a listener had to be impressed, rather like watching a thrilling Chinese opera when you don’t speak Chinese.
Before this exhausting feat, he led us through familiar territory, beginning with the 24 Chopin Preludes. These, too, Pollini has recorded, marvelously, and I must say that the great man seemed to coast a bit last night. Has he grown tired of Chopin, after sharing the same railway coach for six decades? A recent Chopin recital on DG showed the same lack of enthusiasm and charisma. The spell that Pollini’s playing casts is delicately poised, in that he focuses with a sort of relaxed laser beam, giving the impression of effortlessness while never letting your attention wander for even a second. On this occasion the effortlessness was there, but my attention wandered considerably. To be fair, the rapturous audience didn’t agree with me.
The real Pollini emerged, for me, after intermission when he offered a group of Debussy Preludes from Book I. His style in Debussy is soberly elegant. There are few overt effects and none of Gieseking’s ravishing colorism. You have to be in the mood for Vichy water instead of Champagne. I was, and nothing could have been more purely beautiful or beautifully pure. Since Pollini is considered an intellectual pianist, I wondered if he wasn’t presenting a thesis on French music in this program. Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez could be woven together in various ways, but the thread that struck me was aestheticism. The three composers are all aesthetes, Chopin that delicate orchid, Debussy the Baudelairean dandy, and Boulez the mental snob breathing air too refined for mere mortals. It’s just a thought, and I wish I hadn’t found the leisure to be thinking. Surrendering to Pollini’s spell has been one of the joys of my musical life, but last night the wizard’s cap was askew.
A “relaxed laser” describes exactly for me the Pollini spell, when it is working. But needle showers are an acquired taste. I’m a Gieseking guy, and though I’ve been fair to Boulez for relaxing his cutting edge on the podium (under the influence of the Vienna Philharmonic), I cannot abide most of his music, including said piano sonata. The great flaw of serialism, in contrast with the normal parameters of art, is that all the variables of appeal to the ear are removed, and only those reflecting the mind remain. One is then forgiven for dismissing the mind. Perhaps we should rewrite “No Exit” and have all the unpleasant composers like Boulez arrive in Sartre’s Hell, forced to listen to each other playing Howard Hanson on the synthesizer.