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Less is More

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/20/1999 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 119
Arnold Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces
Alban Berg: Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet; Five Movements for String Quartet
Igor Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet
Frederic Chopin: Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 28

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Alain Damiens (clarinet)
Juilliard String Quartet

Maurizio Pollini continued his brilliant series of Perspectives concerts last night with an entire evening of miniatures from two distinct centuries of Western music. Looking cursorily at the program one would have thought that Webern would have written the shortest of these pieces and yet that honor actually goes to Beethoven, whose penultimate bagatelle lasts only fifteen seconds. Each of the concerts in this two-year residency attempts to show links between music of differing periods and brevity was the bridge tonight.

Often longwinded and bombastic (see the ending of the Eroica or the entire first movement of the Violin Concerto), Beethoven was capable of Romantic storytelling in miniature. The sections of Op. 119 seem like modern short stories, on the order, say of Borges. There is a definite journey conveyed in each of these jewels. Pollini attacked them with relish, uncharacteristically playing several wrong notes and hitting two keys mistakenly at once, but his concentration was shattered by three distinct incidents with cellular telephones. The Carnegie Hall management may have to consider installing plastic detectors at all of the entrances to do away with these infernal devices.

After collecting himself, Signor Pollini launched into his specialized repertoire, that of the broad scope of the twentieth century. There is no living pianist who has such a firm grasp on this most difficult of eras and listening to him play Schoenberg is like peeking into a Tibetan monastery. We are privy to a world of pure thought and intellectual pleasure not often even glimpsed by the average music lover.

For the wildly exciting coltish Berg pieces, Pollini showed his talent for organization by selecting Alain Damiens as his partner. Mr. Damiens is not only an agile player with a good tone, but he is uniquely gifted in projecting the unusual sounds that Berg demanded of this instrument, sort of a combination of Gershwin and late Carl Nielsen. Positively otherworldy noises emanated from this delightful combination of modern player and Classical instrument and I was left with a new appreciation of these exciting forays into the surreal. So much energy!

Needing a break in this Herculean (and yet Lilliputian) evening, Pollini relinquished the stage to the Juilliard String Quartet, who have been performing the difficult music of Anton Webern since the 1950’s (this is now the second generation of such acolytes). The Six Bagatelles are possibly packed with the most musical freight per note in history and putting them across to a large audience in a cavernous hall is no small task. The subtleties of bowing and "flutter-tounging" can easily get lost in the rafters and yet these accomplished musicians brought out every nuance. The Five Movements is in many ways the seminal piece of aphoristic music and, in the right hands, can be one of the most exciting ten minutes in all of the entire concert repertoire. Last night we were in very capable hands with a well developed sense of propulsion and the silences between the notes were positively thrilling. The little Stravinskian circus-like essays were a necessary change of mood before we hit 57th Street for some air.

I have a pianist friend who says that Pollini is the greatest living practitioner of his art because he always hits every key in its exact center. I was skeptical about this during the Beethoven but I am surely a believer now after the most amazingly athletic performance of Chopin that I have ever experienced. This week is the 175th death anniversary of this wonderfully communicative and sensitive man and a complete performance of the Op. 28 at this level of intensity was a memory for the ages. The most striking features of this performance were its sheer vitality and the unbelievable cleanliness of the phrasing and execution. Although not as poetic as Zimerman (and I would have to opt for him if forced to choose) this reading rivaled the halcyon days of Horowitz in its sheer impressiveness.

After sustained applause, Pollini treated us to three Chopin encores, the second of which, a powerful reading of the "Winter Wind" Etude caused me to audibly expel breath after anticipating the execution of those superbly difficult last ten measures. I cannot imagine a more satisfying display of sheer force of will and pianistic purity. Very rare for me, I joined the standing ovation which lasted for at least four minutes. This master will be back throughout the next two years and you can be sure that I will be there as often as possible.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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