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Schubert: Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London, 26 02 2011. (GD)

Piano Sonatas D 958 in C minor, D 959 in A major, D 960 in B flat.


This third concert in the 'Pollini Project', encompassing Schubert's final trio of sonatas complemented perfectly the last concert which included the last trio of Beethoven's piano sonatas. It is quite amazing to think that Schubert's late piano sonatas were composed only a few years after Beethoven's late works in this form, the latter emphasising economy and concision. Schubert's works are still in the 'classical' Viennese tradition, but they are far more expansive, not so much in duration, as in tonal layout, and a sonata dialectic, where the narrative form is overlaid by 'land - scape'-like and contrasting sequences of lyricism, and often highly chromatic, dramatic tonal shifts and outbursts.

Pollini delivered these fantastic contrasts in a masterly fashion whilst, at the same time, always reminding us that all this is still contained in classical sonata form. The C minor opening bars of D 958 were immediate and arresting, emphasising the diminished fifth. A rhythmic pattern which informs this late sonata trio. Also the closeness to the theme from Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor was made clearer than in most performances. Pollini's articulation of the inevitable transition into the song-like second theme in E flat major had an almost haunting quality in its radiant lyricism, light years removed from the terse opening theme. The development section, with its daring and incessant semiquaver (sixteenth note ) figurations, and the extended coda, with its eerie transition from C major to C minor, made their dramatic and strange effect more convincingly than any performance I have heard recently. Pollini's mastery of juxtaposition and mood-change continued in the contrast between the opening A flat melody and the grim tension of the second episode of the Adagio, with its daring harmonics and modulations. The shifting stresses and rhythms of the Menuetto were perceptively realised, as was the whole mood of the movement with brusque interruptions and sudden pauses. This pianistic perception sustained itself into the rondo finale with its incessant 'riding rhythm' and tonal excursions into such remote keys as G major and E flat major. Altogether this was a unique pianistic experience.

The same qualities described above were there in Pollini's rendition of Schubert's last two sonatas. Pollini has the almost unique ability to project a dazzling clarity without ever succumbing to exhibitionistic virtuosity for it own sake. I say 'almost' as Rudolf Serkin had a similar ability in his prime. But Pollini can also register a richness of tone not always available to Serkin. This amazing clarity was evident in the opening rhythmic gesture of the D 959, which constitutes the rhythmic/dynamic imprint of the whole movement. And what wonderful strength and elegance in the following apreggios in triplets! The recapitulation and coda, still haunted by the oscillations of C major and B Major, from the development section, sounded wonderfully 'natural' and inevitable. Pollini made the abrupt lead in to the exposition repeat sound so arresting and punctual that its exclusion would seem untenable. In the F sharp minor Adantino Pollini demonstrated that the unique 'poetic tragedy' of the music can sound utterly convincing at a tempo that does not drag. The amazingly original harmonies and chromatic contortions of the shattering middle section had all the frisson and shock effect imaginable. But it always remained musical - never histrionic. Pollini's vocal accompaniments here had to be heard to be believed! The magical waltz-like strains of the Scherzo, with a beautifully 'sung' trio, and the lyrical effusiveness of the Rondo finale, with its subtle references to the earlier A minor Sonate, D 537, followed on with a compellingly beautiful, but sustained and flowing inevitability.

All the much commented upon 'flowing lyricism' of Schubert's last Sonata in B flat D 960 was there, Pollini projecting all the richness of harmony one has come to associate with this 'valedictory' late work. But when we reached the F sharp minor of the second theme Pollini made us more aware than usual of the darker side to this work. This darker, more arrestingly dramatic tone was extended into the C sharp minor of the development section linking up wth the low G flat trills just before the coda's final chords. As with D 959, Pollini convincingly observed the exposition repeat. Again Pollini demonstrated that playing the Andante sostenuto as marked scores in terms of structure and balance with the rest of the sonata, also allowing a degree of underlying intensity in the opening C sharp minor. The haunting A major lyricism of the middle section sustained the movement's melodic invention with Pollini inflecting the poetic pathos residing just on the surface of the music. The above comments on Pollini's rendition of the last two movements of D 959 apply equally here; the delicate lightness of the Scherzo, and the tonal ambiguities of the rondo finale between onward impulse and sadly tender lyricism were all superbly realised.

Ideally piano playing of such rare musicality and conviction would have been better served in the Wigmore Hall with its far more open and piano friendly acoustic. But it says a lot about the special qualities of Pollini's musicianship that the acoustical restrictions of the Festival hall were somehow overcome. It was still a restricted acoustic, but with Pollini's pianistic mastery and poetry all these shortcomings seemed to fade into insignificance.


Geoff Diggines

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