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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: op. 54 in F, op.57 in f – "Appassionata", op. 78 in F sharp, op. 90 in e
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Recorded June 2002 in Munich, Residenz, Herkulessaal
Limited edition includes bonus CD with live performances of opp. 57 and 78 recorded live in the Musikverein, Vienna, 4th June 2002
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 451-2 [56:30 + bonus CD 33:19]


It’s strange that, while the outside world obstinately typecasts Italian musicians as a generous-souled, spontaneous if superficial bunch of spaghetti-eaters, and can always call on Big Luciano to prove their point, as many Italians can be named who ply their art with a solitary and watchful perfectionism equal to that of any renaissance goldsmith. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was a supreme example among pianists and if Maurizio Pollini has proved far more professionally reliable – he has not left a chain of broken engagements behind him – his pianistic perfection is scarcely inferior. There is a tendency in England to look upon him as a chilly technician – just as there is a tendency in Italy to refuse to recognise that he is indeed sometimes just that. The present Beethoven record, part of a complete cycle he is gradually building up, generally finds him engaged – with plenty of groans and grunts to prove it – and never more so than in the Appassionata.

It goes without saying that the letter of each sonata is rigorously sculpted; dynamics, phrasing and pedalling are just what the urtext says they should be and the tempi – steadily maintained – are always justifiable interpretations of Beethoven’s markings. The first movement of the Appassionata is as awesome in its pianos as in its fortes and the finale, rightly "allegro ma non troppo" has a magnificent surge. I wouldn’t call the "Andante con moto" exactly inward – the sheer equality of the semiquaver variations lends the music a remoteness – but its cool expressiveness is far from perfunctory.

It is where Beethoven needs special pleading that Pollini’s system of simply realising the score perfectly fails to engage. Not that special pleading is often required in a Beethoven sonata but the first movement of op. 54 – a work sometimes nicknamed the "Dispassionata" – is one case and if you have the idea that it alternates bland minuet material with Czerny-style studies in octaves, Pollini is unlikely to convince you otherwise. The less problematic finale goes with a fine spin.

The tiny F sharp major sonata is no mere sonatina but one of Beethoven’s most perfect and subtle works. Pollini captures beautifully its first movement’s alternation between gentle serenity and light-toned vitality and if his finale is not actually witty it has great exuberance.

The first movement of op. 90 is another hard one to hold together and Pollini’s steady-as-she-goes approach evades rather than answers the questions it poses. The long finale has a gentle, heart-easing Schubertian lyricism which might not have been expected of this artist until relatively recently.

We also get – or you will if you snap up the limited edition which accompanies the first release – live recordings of op. 78 and the Appassionata from Pollini’s private collection. With all respect, I wonder what he wants to prove. If it is that his legendary technique is unfazed by the presence of a public, I think we could have taken that as read. If it is that his private equipment produces less good sound than DG’s studio best – acceptable though the former would have been if we had been offered only that – then this also might have been taken for granted. If he wishes us to hear him spontaneously communicating with his live audience, then I beg to suggest that there is precious little in it. The Appassionata first movement is as awesome in its fortes as the studio one but – on account of its greater impetuosity – less so in the pianos and so ultimately less so in the fortes as well. If studio performance of the slow movement of this sonata is not exactly the most humanely warm you’ve ever heard it is not as mechanical as the live one sometimes is either. The first movement of op. 78, on the other hand, concentrates on the gentle serenity to the extent that the more vital movements seem less than fully integrated. In other words, the studio performances achieve a finer equilibrium in both cases. So why did he do it?

Well, Pollini was always something of a polemicist, and a card-carrying Communist for as long as Italian Communists had cards to carry. He has never gone in for live recordings the way some of his colleagues have. Did he intend some sort of anti-live-recording pamphlet?

Still, the main disc will be around long after the limited edition has sunk from view and with at least two of the sonatas ranking with the best this is a Beethoven disc to acquire.

Christopher Howell


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