The Great Pollini
Johannes Brahms: Fantasies, Op. 116
Anton Webern: Piano Variations
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstueck # V & IX
Ludwig van Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
My first experience of Maurizio Pollini was at Davies in San Francisco many years ago. On the program of Beethoven and Schubert was the ”Appassionata”. I remember my companion, a great devotee of jazz but bereft of any classical tradition, expressing profound surprise that anyone could criticize this artist for a certain coldness and lack of emotion (this was the dish on the pianist in those days) after hearing such an electrifying performance. When I returned to Connecticut, I presented a four-hour radio program entitled Maurizio Pollini: Composer’s Pianist, which explored this artist’s architectural conceptions from Chopin to Nono and produced several telephone calls of praise from appreciative listeners. At some point during these years, I became aware through professional pianists whom I know of Signor Pollini’s uncanny ability to strike each note in its exact physical center, never producing any unwanted or extraneous overtones regardless of repertoire. Now winding up two full seasons at Carnegie Hall as a featured artist in the Perspectives series, Pollini has navigated his way through the entire historical spectrum of Western music, presenting choral works of Machaut and fresh new pieces of Kurtag and Sciarrino. For me, the only remaining question is who is the better, Mitsuko Uchida or Maurizio Pollini (and, perhaps not coincidentally, they are the only two artists that I see attending concerts presented by others on a regular basis). The answer lies somewhere on a musical plane only occasionally visited by us mere mortals.
Opp.116-119 are Brahms’ most personal statements and the Fantasies were given the personal stamp of this unique performer last evening. Certainly Pollini brought out the poignancy of these valedictory pieces, but in a voice previously unheard by this listener. The consistent use of the pedal gave these pieces an otherworldly quality, less powerful perhaps but more serene than a classic performance of the past (compare Backhaus). His reading of the Intermezzo:Adagio (#4), what Karl Geiringer called Brahms’ most “intensely emotional” composition, was sublime. The great ones often surprise you; this interpretation will stimulate a good deal of thought on my part in the near future.
Not a pianist himself, Anton Webern wrote little for solo keyboard. In his proportionately large output of songs, however, he experimented with the klangfarben of this individual instrument, emphasizing in his accompaniments the tremendous potential for coloristic effect inherent in this most complex of expressive vehicles. Pollini’s version of the Variations was remarkable for its aural palette. Here I may make a direct comparison to Uchida, as I heard her perform this same piece last season. She emphasized the structure of the work, displaying the qualities which make these short sections cogent variations. Pollini rather played upon the differences of hue in an extremely subtle manner, revealing the contrast and yet compatibility of a high pitched staccato and a low, growling tremolo. He took the devilishly difficult second movement much slower than other have attempted, clearly enunciating all of the inner voices hidden in the normally prestissimo tempo. This was surely a revelatory performance.
I had the pleasure of meeting Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1960’s and realized at the time that his music would only catch on if it could attract dedicated ambassadors willing to breach the gap between the standard concert repertoire and his rebellious voice. Such an acolyte is Maurizio Pollini, his espousal of contemporary music at the height of his concertizing popularity a strong advocacy for this important genre. Two seasons ago, this friend of Nono and Maderna performed Stockhausen’s Klavierstueck VII at Carnegie, but had an altercation with his page-turner mid-performance (he actually slapped her in front of the stunned Carnegie crowd). Ingeniously solving any potential problems this night, Signor had the pages of these two pieces mounted on huge sheets of heavy cardboard (a large attaching music holder had to be carried out by two of the stage hands) and thus he was able to remove the pages himself, the pedal sustaining the last chord of the previous one during the process. These two works from the resentment filled Central European ‘50’s, the movement which would erupt in the riot surrounding the premiere of Nono’s Intolleranza, were actually quite tame in comparison to the piece presented two years ago. Pollini once again brought out the singing tone behind the angry masque, his right hand cascade a steely waterfall worthy of Toru Takemitsu.
There aren’t too many mountains left to climb for this Everest veteran, but his latest project has been to take the Diabelli Variations head on (there is also a recent CD). In what can only be described as a Herculean effort, the master dazzled with his endurance, his variable touch, his surprising wit. Singing to himself like an endearing ghost of Glenn Gould, Pollini seemed to totally become the work, a disembodied creature of pure sound and characterization. The individual variants were filled with emotion (in the ”Notte e giorno faticar” section, you could feel Leperello’s anger) but more striking was the shape of the work as a Gargantuan whole. The minute pause before the final recapitulation was a moment of sheer electricity and I couldn’t help but release an audible sigh at the end of such a masterfully physical effort. The seven curtain calls demanded by the huge audience (there were three sections of stage seats as well as the sold out house) demonstrated the crowd’s concurrence.
So who is the better pianist, Mitsuko or Pollini (but wait, what about Andras Schiff?)? I am delighted to inform you that I don’t have the slightest idea. I guess that I will just have to continue to do the research at every available opportunity. This recital marked the culmination of Pollini’s two-year residency at Carnegie, but not to worry. He performs on the very second night of the eagerly awaited new season.
Frederick L. Kirshnit