The Pollini Project – Chopin, Debussy, Boulez
Royal Festival Hall
June 28, 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
This was originally intended to be the penultimate programme of Pollini’s five-concert Project spanning the gamut of keyboard repertoire from Bach to Boulez (albeit with a large Classical Period-sized gap), but has been postponed for a couple of months due to illness. In my opinion this has made for a more fitting end to the series, not only following chronological order but also concluding by challenging the audience with something ‘modern’ rather than the obvious crowd-pleasing Chopin of what became the fourth Project concert. Appropriately, this concert in fact draws a connection, perhaps not immediately obvious, between the hugely different Chopin and Boulez. As maybe the first composer to make the sustaining pedal of vital importance in all his piano music, and one famed for the delicacy and sensitivity of his playing, Chopin is clearly an important precursor of Debussy’s conception of the piano as ‘an instrument without hammers’. In turn, Debussy’s interest in timbre and non-functional harmony for their own sake can be seen as the start of the process of emancipation from diatonicism and structural norms that eventually led to Boulez’s total serialism of all the individual elements of music, as might be surmised from his championing of Debussy in concert and on record.
It was a very astute piece of programming by Pollini, yet to me his playing of the Chopin Preludes did not on the whole seem to match this level of intelligence and insight. There was an oddly cursory air to some of them, such as the too fast and inexpressive No. 2 in A minor and No. 4 in E minor, and in general I found his approach to the slower preludes quite cold (though admittedly it could be praised for not sentimentalising them). An exception to this was No. 9 in E major, and I would say that the performance as a whole was generally more vibrant from about this point onwards. Pollini seemed to respond best to the sections that were both loud and fast, which seemed less unnaturally forced than, for instance, the ff opening of No. 20 in C minor.
I noted in my review of the fourth of these concerts how Pollini has a tendency to begin a long piece, or series of smaller pieces, in a quite stiff or reticent style, becoming more and more open and impassioned as the music goes on. On this night, that process of gradually warming up was stretched to cover the whole concert—after the often indifferent Chopin, the second half was an unmistakable improvement. From the off Pollini seemed in much greater sympathy with Debussy’s language than Chopin’s; whereas, for instance, the fast Chopin preludes had all sounded pretty much the same, here there was far better differentiation of mood between separate pieces (including the two ‘wind’ depictions, Le vent dans la plaine and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, which feature quite similar writing at times), combined with a beautifully fluid and unforced feel throughout. It seemed to me that the applause at the end of this set was rightly warmer than it had been for the Chopin, which was a slight compensation for the inevitable unwelcome appearance, having been completely absent from the first half, of the Greater-Spotted British Cougher, just as Pollini was starting to find his best form.
I’ve mentioned before how I’m no big fan of Boulez, and seeing as the main interest in his work for me is its unusual combination of instrumental timbres—obviously not a consideration in solo piano music—I was expecting a slightly disappointing end to the concert. But Pollini’s passionate advocacy of this piece shone through in his most committed and convincing playing of the night, powerfully enough to at least temporarily convert this non-believer. Despite reading from a score, as he had done with the Stockhausen Klavierstücke in the previous concert, there was not a trace of his tendency to be dry and detached, being completely attuned to the nuances of texture, line and dynamics that are so crucial in bringing this music to life; even his body language during the performance aided the effect by throwing off his typical reserve, helping the audience to engage with music that I’m happy to admit I for one can still find aloof and off-putting. All in all, the second half of the concert did merit the four or five bows Pollini took at the end, and, unlike in the first half, he judged the situation perfectly by not providing an encore—after that last performance, it could only have made an underwhelming end to a series I wish I had been able to see more of.
I am reluctant to say anything about a performance I didn’t hear, so I am glad the Boulez seemed convincing. Sometimes, I find, if you practically sit on the piano while someone goes through a work like that, the appeal can be visceral, the joy in the instrument. But hearing this might not please Boulez the theoretician–at least at the time he composed the work. In that sense dodecaphonic music is a cheat–when it works as music, it betrays its theory. What makes the short Webern pieces for orchestra so wonderful, for example, is that they are so brief as to be hummable. But we don’t hum them by counting repeatedly to twelve…..
Pollini has been known for decades as “icy”, and I hear that beautifully described in your review. Lots of hammers in his playing. I think Debussy would be disappointed. Perhaps someday Pollini will join Boulez, Charles Wuorinen and various other of our torturers in something like Sartre’s vision of Hell, forced to listen to each other’s music-making! I expect numerous others, from Gieseking to David Fray at some future date, would be found elsewhere!