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Beethoven:  Maurizio Pollini,  Royal Festival Hall, London. 15. 2.2011 (GD)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E , Op. 109

Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 110

 Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111


This was the second instalment of the so called 'Pollini Project'. The first concert was devoted to Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, Book One. Pollini's fluency in Bach's contrupuntal diversity, his lucid engagement in Bach's world, albeit on a modern grand piano, augured well for this traversal of Beethoven's final trilogy in piano sonata form. This was especially the case in Op. 110 with its actual quotations from Bach, as well as its excursions into fugal experimentation. 


The opening of Op.109 was suitably inflected wth a diverse, but lyrical touch, expressing the reflective mood and 'ma non troppo' with great conviction. I did notice a momentary and slight note of smudged finger work in this movement, but this was the only instance of this in the whole concert, and didn't seriously detract from the general excellence of Pollini's rendition.   The 'Prestissimo', really a Scherzo without a trio, taken at a 6/8 pace as marked, made a convincing contrast, and was played with a trenchant directness which did not however detract from the movement's concluding reflective mode. The concluding variations, with their Baroque dance-like inflections,  were a model of pianistic eloquence. Here Pollini stressed the second beat of each bar of the triple metre without ever sounding mannered or contrived, as it sometimes does. This insight and eloquence was sustained right up to the extraordinary sixth  variation with its 'sublime lyricism', and the following closing da capo of the original theme.  


Pollini's rendition of Op. 110 had a rare eloquence and intensity. It was such an outstanding performance that it would be superfluous to compare it with any other performance past or present. It was unique in the precise meaning of that term, as being unique in itself and beyond compare! Also Pollini made one realise the point of playing the last three sonatas in one concert. They are all in various ways interlinked. The first movement of Op. 110 being thematically linked to the third movement of Op. 109. Most commentators have emphasised the 'warm hearted' 'bonhomie' of the first movement with its rounds of A flat melody. But Pollini gave equal attention to the more terse and underlying polyphonic texture, and also to the tonal structure of ascending fourths in A-flat, D-flat, B-flat and E-flat, all anticipating the fugal modes in the weightier final. Just the right amount of contrast between humour and mock seriousness was achieved in the Allegro molto 2/4 scherzo. The rhythms of the popular songs Beethoven alludes to here, one being, 'Our cat has had kittens' were well projected. The more substantial final with its twofold pairing of the lamenting arioso and consoling fugue was taken in one coherent span without ever undermining the specificity of each section - actually a quite staggering feat of tempo and tonal alignment! The G minor Arioso dolente, whose main theme is taken from the aria Er ist vollbracht from Bach's St John Passion, was beautifully moulded, as were the two tonally related fugues. The coda, with its synthesis of sonata form and Bachian counterpoint, starting with the return of the Arioso dolente, in fragmented phrases, had tonight a dialectical inevitability totally in keeping with Beethoven's sonata vision. 


The same pianistic excellence, noted above, applied to Pollini's performance of Beethoven's last piano sonata Op. 111. From its C minor first movement, to the the concluding set of six contrasting variations, Pollini was attentive to every harmonic nuance, every rhythmic/lyrical contrast. The opening C minor Maestoso and Allegro con brio were bold and direct eschewing any kind of imposed interpretive rhetoric. The defiant mood, in the exposition, reminded one strongly of Beethoven in C minor mood, the Pathetique Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, the 'Coriolan' Overture. The Arietta was phrased with great care, and eloquence, never sounding 'dragged out' or sentimental. The six concluding variations were again taken in one span, as it were. The third variation, with its mood of 'tremendous exultation', to use Tovey's phrase, never lost sight of the underlying modal structure, related to the home tonic, but now in C major. Even in the jazzy 'boogie-woogie' sounding section we were kept aware of its place in a classical sonata structure. The final variation, on the dominant G, and the ensuing coda in E flat major was in perfect harmony with Tovey's 'ecstatic repose'. 

Geoff Diggines


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