Arnold Schoenberg: Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata # 29 ("Hammerklavier")
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstueck X
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
The most eagerly awaited event of this musical year in New York is the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. Three of the most important figures in present day music making are featured: Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Maurizio Pollini. Each will present at least ten concerts this season either singly or intertwined in some fashion (Maestro Barenboim will lead his Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program of compositions by Boulez and both Barenboim and Pollini will appear separately as soloists with Maestro Boulez in the spring when he brings the London Symphony to town). Carnegie Hall has scored a real coup by engaging the great Pollini for two complete seasons, and he will perform almost 30 concerts in the next two years (close to his entire output of public appearances). All three men are taking the opportunity to acquaint New York audiences with music written after the death of Webern and each will be premiering new works as well. The entire odyssey was launched this afternoon with a very satisfying performance by this most intellectual and intense of modern pianistic wizards.
Clearly the link between these three seminal works for the keyboard is their common emergences at the very beginning of new eras in art music. The second of the three Schoenberg pieces is the pivotal moment in the entire history of twentieth century music. Here the composer abandons the comfortable shackles of conventional harmony to venture out into the unknown realm without a tonal center. Perhaps the most amazing quality of this piece is that the composer knows how vitally important it is at the very moment of composition. The left hand ambles through a tonal landscape like a bear in the forest while the right begins to fearlessly move into the undiscovered country which will change the course of all Western music forever. The straining against the bonds of traditional theory that is the first piece evolves into the totally pantonal atmosphere of the third, wildly flailing in a vacuum of disunity. In just ten minutes, the entire musical universe is altered and we can really feel, as Schoenberg says in his String Quartet #2, written at the same time, "…the air of another planet". Pollini's performance was intensely well thought out, ranging from the ruminating style of the first piece to the white-hot passion of the third. As in every performance by this master of the keyboard, one felt that this was the best that they would ever hear these pieces performed.
A definite parallel between Schoenberg and Beethoven is that each of these giants knew his place in the history of music. Unlike say Bach or Mozart, Beethoven was well aware that he was changing the face of Western culture and was extremely confident that future generations would heed his clarion call. The "Hammerklavier" is one of those complicated works of proto-Romanticism, telling an epic tale with its many twists and turns. Signor Pollini established from the powerfully pounding introductory notes that this was to be a stellar performance and he proceeded to breeze through the fingering asteroid belts with the grace of a tightrope walker. The crowning glory of his interpretation was the magnificently constructed slow movement, an entire roman a clef in itself, so engaging and hypnotic that I must confess to not hearing the first few measures of the finale, as I was still under the spell of this pianistic necromancy. This is truly a deaf man's music, so powerful in its intimacy that it almost defies translation into the world of the mundanely audible, but Pollini makes us feel all of the emotion buried in the inner passages to the point where I was left positively breathless.
The intermission was indeed a great divide as the now jacketless Pollini made his way to center stage with his trusty page remover to quixotically take on the ultra-modern sonic universe of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The score of Klavierstueck X has a definite pattern to it but it can be started and ended at any point in the music, hence the pages are detached from one another. Pollini leapt right into the fray, attacking the keyboard with his elbows (producing gasps of horror from the many piano students in the crowd) and athletically navigating this hyperdriven version of atmospheres from the far reaches of the galaxy. The page remover was a very busy young woman and had at least two altercations with the performer, during one of which he actually slapped her (I'm guessing that they are really very good friends offstage), but persevered throughout these very difficult 22 minutes. Here was a glimpse of the music of the future and the rather young crowd (at least by Carnegie Hall standards) was on board for the entire voyage into the farthest reaches of the unknown. I have had the pleasure of meeting Herr Stockhausen and have always been struck by the phenomenon that this extremely gentle man can write such horribly violent and angry music. He too is aware of his place in music history and Maurizio Pollini is a great advocate for this music of the future.
My entire line of reasoning was bizarrely reinforced by the presence of Leonard Nimoy in the audience as we filed out of the auditorium. He was deeply impressed by the tension in the Stockhausen piece and, by implication and gesture, as knocked out as I was by the amazing performance of this rare treasure of a pianist. New Yorkers are blessed to have Pollini in their midst and I for one will be thanking my lucky stars as I trek to future performances.
Frederick L. Kirshnit