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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Chopin, Maurizio Pollini (piano), Royal Festival Hall, 24 April, 2005 (CC)

The meeting of Chopin and Pollini on the same concert programme will come as no surprise to anyone. The liberal sprinklings of Nocturnes that laced Sunday evening’s programme might, though (although he did record some for HMV in the wake of his Chopin Competition win all those years ago). Is this a precursor to an integral set on DG? One hopes so.

The three Nocturnes, Op. 15 that began the recital found Pollini using a more brittle sound than is his wont. Left-hand accompaniments were more foregrounded than usual; the middle section of No. 1 (F major) was almost a little operatic scena in itself. Yet Pollini can do (knowing) simplicity, too. The F sharp Nocturne showed this particularly in the handling of ornaments, that felt inevitable, improvised. The G minor, No. 3 might as well have been marked ‘Dolente’, its rise to its climax perfectly judged. Pollini seemed to be on a crusade to show just how much the Nocturne form can take, emphasising Chopin’s expansion of this form.

To separate Op. 15 from the two Nocturnes, Op. 48, Pollini inserted the Third Ballade (A flat, Op. 47). Not quite emerging from nothing, Pollini once more emphasised the organic process, this time within a more energetic setting. More traditionally relaxed passages seethed with an undercurrent of energy waiting to be unleashed. Again, left-hand definition was beyond criticism; and the fortissimo statement of the main theme was little short of liberating.

Pollini left the stage at this point, and the piano was repositioned. Unexpected, but Pollini was clearly anxious to press on (he hardly waits – if at all – to settle himself before launching into the next piece). The Third Ballade and the two Nocturnes, Op. 48 are contemporaneous (the summer of 1841, written at Nohant). Two sides of the same coin, one might argue. The C minor Nocturne (Op. 48 No. 1) was almost painfully expressive, possessed of sonorous line and real drama; the second of the group (F sharp minor) was truly remarkable. The varied terrain of this piece threatened to break out into recitative at times. It was a fascinating journey (and who else today plays trills so perfectly evenly).

The abandon of the first Scherzo that ended the first half of the concert was visceral. Such unbuttoned fluidity of utterance is rarely heard, with contrasting sections making one aware of the unrest bubbling away underneath. Just one example – the loud single chord that articulates (structurally) the return of the opening was not just loud, but had its own internal energy that acted as a microcosm for the work as a whole.

Post-interval, the two sets of Nocturnes Opp. 55 and 62 were juxtaposed with the Second Sonata. The expressive F minor (Op. 55 No. 1) led to the E flat (Op. 55 No. 2), a miracle of ornamentation. As if to prove he can do truly interior playing, Pollini gave a magical account of the trill-encrusted Op. 55 No. 1, contrasting it with the music-drama in miniature E flat (Op. 55 No. 2), wherein whole worlds were encapsulated in the space of but a few minutes.

In February, Hélène Grimaud played the Second Sonata in this very hall in a performance that celebrated the mediocre. Pollini’s stamp on this work could hardly be more different. The granite beginning, the string, determined continuation (not a hint of the flighty), the emphasis on the disruptive repeat (to the very beginning), the sheer joy in the compositional fragmentation marked out a great interpretation. Contrast again Pollini and Grimaud in the Scherzo, pitting Pollini’s iron control in the Scherzo (and his elemental fury at its reappearance) with Grimaud’s splashing attempt. Pollini’s Funeral March was dark and frightening, a lonely space no one wishes to inhabit for too long. The moment of consolation was lovely, but marked by a refusal to linger. But of all the recital, it was the finale that was jaw-dropping. Not just technically (although the speed and evenness defied belief in this true Presto), but in its uneasy shiftings. Some miraculous playing here, then.

Colin Clarke

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