The Twilight of a God?
Fryderyk Chopin : Two Nocturnes, Op. 27 – Ballades No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47 & No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 – Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57 – Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 – Two Nocturnes, Op. 55 – Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
M. Pollini (© Steven S. Sherman)
It is not easy to write about an artist who only some decades ago was a sort of pianistic god for all of us, young music lovers, pianists or otherwise (and none among us was otherwise). That was then and now we are all faced with the reality that Maurizio Pollini is approaching his twilight years. Time has not been the kindest to him, and unlike some other piano virtuosos who were still on top of their instrumental and artistic powers even in their eighth decade, Pollini started to decline much earlier. One should probably append this statement with the qualifier Pollini’s “state-of-decline” might happen to be for others an unapproachable peak. Yet there is plenty of evidence that he simply does not play as well as he used to.
For many of us, what we now hear from this once supreme pianist can be compared to some formerly magnificent architectural structure that has been visibly neglected for decades until now we see only unkempt grounds overgrown with tall weeds, wide cracks in the remaining walls, falling pieces of plaster, broken windows and a general state of dilapidation. So you can still recognize the former greatness but each year marks another step toward further deterioration.
Pollini’s all-Chopin program – which originally was supposed to include Debussy Preludes – as always brought to Carnegie Hall throngs of people who still remain eager to hear him play, regardless of how well or how poorly. The audience reception was very warm and incredibly enthusiastic and fortunately there were quite a few moments of former greatness.
The first to mention has to be his sound. Pollini, even as he aged, fortunately retained a unique richness to his tone: it still is meaty, melting, carrying easily to the top of the balcony yet never percussive, never harsh. There is also a sense of line or as some would call it, architecture. But music also has to tell a story, and recent decades Pollini has not been the best story teller. There is rarely in his playing a “what happened next, Granny?”. For even a child will internalize the story or a fairy-tale much better when there is a moment of rest between each paragraph or when “granny” interrupts the tale to increase the child’s interest. It works very similarly in music and alas that important element of narration, the space between the phrases, is too frequently missing from Maurizio Pollini playing. There is another aspect of his playing which he and I see through a different lens: the matter of building culmination, whether in a ballade or a nocturne. Pollini sees the road to a climax as the building up of speed; I feel that holding back can be much more effective.
Pollini’s playing almost always seems rushed, as if he were aiming three steps ahead of the music to be played. And that is perhaps my biggest criticism of his interpretations. They rarely breathe. This creates in the listener – at least in this listener – a sense of unease, of discomfort like we would experience if any speaker were running his sentences together. Thus if the Chopin Nocturnes, a pair of which opened each half of the recital, can be considered as love songs, in Pollini’s renditions we have witnessed very young and impatient lover. Let’s stop the description at this point.
Usually less able pianists cover their lack of purely pianistic abilities with over-use of the sustaining pedal (sometimes referred to as the “emergency pedal”). Alas, Pollini, who has, or rather, used to have, one of the best sets of fingers in the pianistic business, too often resorts to that practice, as if he were unable to take his foot off the pedal. This creates a haze of sound without much clarity. What is interesting is that he does it even when his fingers are in perfect order. This is a quality I found most puzzling already many years ago. Here the artist’s apparent nervousness affected members of the audience as well.
Just as in sports, in music we “the connoisseurs” await the so-called “difficult moments” which also exist in figure skating or in gymnastics, and the perfect execution of these aerial twists gives athletes the necessary points to win. In music we have them in virtuoso compositions and sometimes we wait to see how and with how much ease our virtuoso is going to conquer them. Unsurprisingly, during his recital Pollini conquered most of those finger-twisting moments with relative accuracy, proving again that it is not only his pianistic decline but rather his nerves which often destroy his interpretations.
It has been a long time since I heard Pollini play the Chopin Sonata in B minor and his handling of it now was for the most part satisfactory even if marred by some imperfection. But the way he managed the architecture of the first movement Allegro maestoso was actually regal and allowed us a glimpse of that previously mentioned former greatness. There were even some interesting and original details in the left hand. But the ruminative third movement Largo in its middle section was again mindlessly rushed, rendering it, as was the case with the middle parts of the Nocturnes or Scherzo in B minor, borderline aggressive. When the time came for encores I realized that the Nocturne in D flat op. 27 which Pollini invariably – I stress the word invariably! – offers as an encore has been already performed in the main body of the program. That left his other favorite encore Ballade in G minor to be played and it received as always a compelling reading, with a fiendishly difficult coda almost perfectly executed. Go figure...
The common definition of insanity is “to make the same mistake and expect different results”. Why then do I continue to attend Pollini’s recitals and hope that things might improve, even if they have not improved for decades now? Maybe the culprit is indeed insanity. I will not suggest, as several British critics recently have, that Maestro Pollini should consider retiring from concertizing. It is neither up to them nor to me to make decisions for him; he is already scheduled to appear at Carnegie Hall next season. However, I would remind my readers that a couple of years ago an equally famous musician and pianist, Alfred Brendel, did retire from the concert stage while still in full control of his pianistic potency. I will always carry in my memory that example and it will always shine when I hear a musician who reveals only a fraction of his former glory.