Accurate But Not Correct
Frederic Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Ballade # 3, Sonata, Op. 35
Claude Debussy: 12 Preludes
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
For years now, I have been successfully fending off those critics who have anointed Maurizio Pollini a cold and impersonal technician by writing rhapsodically about concerts that I have attended wherein his playing has been the height of emotional integrity. One Beethoven concert at Davies Hall stands out as the most febrile conjunction of feeling and dexterity in memory. Further, Pollini can be extremely warm in even the most forbidding scores: his Nono and Stockhausen are white hot.
But yesterday at the New Jersey PAC center, Signor Pollini put the lie to all of my defenses of him by performing a positively frigid afternoon of Chopin and Debussy. All of the, by now, cliché criticisms were justified in spades: craft instead of art, pyrotechnics for their own sakes, sound and not much fury signifying nothing. Although it was hard not to admire the superb digital coordination, very little of the poetry emerged from Pollini’s rather severe cocoon.
After a couple of nocturnes which I chose to brand as “thoughtful”, this enigmatic pianist rolled out an absolutely faithful rendition of the Ballade # 3, faithful, that is, to the printed score. What was missing was virtually all of the feeling: there was no rubato, no slight pause, no dynamic variation, no dramatic left hand. What’s the point of this style of play? I’m sure that, although Chopin penned these notes onto this paper, he did not choose to play it this way.
This rather ascetic distillation also permeated the Sonata in B Flat minor, with its famous funeral march. Hearing all of the notes, even though they were struck in their exact centers and projected masterfully throughout the acoustically rich PAC center hall, was simply not enough. It is, after all, a funeral for us all, as deeply shrouded in mystery as any piece in the repertoire. In Pollini’s taut but pedestrian interpretation, however, there was no room for sorrow.
The Debussy fared little better. Book Two of the Preludes exhibited little variation beyond the initially impressive watery textures. Even the substance was affected by this bloodless approach: the pomposity of S. Pickwick, Esq. was lost in a haze of accuracy. Apparently, it is possible to be too perfect. This performance seemed more the product of a machine than a man.
Frederick L. Kirshnit