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Honest Musicality by a Legendary Pianist

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
04/15/2009 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45 – Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 – Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 – Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20 – Four Mazurkas, Op. 33 – Berceuse, Op. 57 – Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 ‘Heroic’
Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Maurizio Pollini (© Philippe Gontier/DG)

It is unbelievable for a classical concert’s tickets to be sold out within an hour. In music lovers’ hearts, Maurizio Pollini, a legendary name, has already become a brand of success and triumph. Every Hong Kong audience went to the concert hall with an anticipation of witnessing a legendary piano recital, like Horowitz returning to Moscow.

Indeed, it is impossible not to admire Mr. Pollini’s ever-questing musical mind. At the age of 67, this long-green pine is currently recording a complete set of Chopin’s piano works and Beethoven Sonatas for Deutsche Gramophon, a recording company he collaborated with for nearly 40 years. Unlike most pianists, who focused their repertory on traditional composers such as Beethoven and Chopin, Pollini’s repertoire ranges from Bach, Beethoven, to Stravinsky, Webern, and contemporary composers, including world premiere performances. On Wednesday evening, he chose to endow his musical gift to a group of ‘new’ audience by delivering an all-Chopin program.

Since Mr. Pollini was a music student in the Milan Conservatory, Chopin has taken a central role in his career. Until nowadays, Mr. Pollini is still remembered as a winner of the prestigious Chopin Competition. After 49 years of his triumph, this maestro finally bestowed his fingers to Hong Kong, a place waiting this moment for decades.

To open his recital, Mr. Pollini picked one of Chopin’s most ruminative miniature – his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45. Looking pale and frail, the maestro lost none of his abilities to control his fingers and command of his instrument. The piece was rendered with limpid and transparent texture with a silken pianistic tone. He adopted a flowing tempo, in which he realized Chopin’s underneath poetic insight with an exceptionally calm and serene expression.

The Ballade No. 2 that followed was again a flowing, fluent, and natural reading. The slow opening was plainspoken, where the fervent ending was round-edged and underpowered. Instead of bringing to the surface the refined details and dramatic emotions, Mr. Pollini seemed more intent on constructing the music’s cohesive architecture, transforming the disparate contrasting sections into a coherent, unified artwork. This kind of structural unity was also found in his undisguised reading of Scherzo No. 1, in which he underlined the lucid musical curve with taut and rigid pace, with the whole piece being a little too heavy-footed. For ears attuned to emotionally contrasting and dramatic interpretations of Ballades and Scherzos, Mr. Pollini sometimes sounded over-academic.

Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, the largest-scale work of the program, was a marvelous exhibition of Mr. Pollini’s distinctive sense of structural awareness. Every tempo, rubato, and even the pause in between movements, were carefully measured so that the continuous breath of the music was not interrupted. Once again, Chopin’s lyrical melodic lines were sung out with the most honest and sincere voice, without any exaggeration and artificiality. This was tellingly exemplified in the heavenly middle section of the Marche funèbre. Even though the rapt lyricism was buried amid a metronomic pace and plainspoken articulation, it never led to boredoms and doldrums. It was Pollini’s ingenuous musical honesty which impressed every pair of ears in the concert hall.

In the four Mazurkas, Mr. Pollini retain the Polish rural taste without compromising Chopin’s elegance and poetry. The occasional over-dotting rhythm and his trademark singing tone truly transformed these country dances into ‘scholarly’ classical concert pieces. The Berceuse was also a full display of Pollini’s musical simplicity and serenity. His understated right-hand filigrees and lightly swinging left-hand rhythm reminded us of the most peaceful and tranquil cradlesong. At last, the solemn and majestic ‘Heroic’ Polonaise pushed every audience’s emotion to a climax.

For encore, the 67-year-old maestro delivered two technically challenging Etudes (Op. 10 Nos. 12 and 4), Ballade No. 1 in G minor, and a Nocturne (Op. 27, No.2), three of which were played in Evgeny Kissin’s recital two weeks ago. In contrast to Mr. Kissin’s visceral excitement and virtuoso shenanigans, Mr. Pollini’s honest and conscientious musicality far outshone his rivalry. Rarely in my experience was a full house standing ovation given to a performer in the Cultural Center. But Maurizio Pollini, a legendary name in the piano history, certainly deserved it.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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