Whenever Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini comes to London there are the gainsayers who declare that he is now “past it”, that his technique is “not what it once was” (he’s in his 70s, so we can’t really expect the nimble fleet-fingers of a man half his age!). But go to one of his concerts and you’ll discover why people still flock to hear him and why he commands enthusiastic applause and standing ovations for his clarity, commitment and musical intent. He’s a virtuoso in the old-fashioned sense of the word – modest (he allows the music to speak for itself), adventurous (in his programmes), noble and generous.
For his second programme at the Royal Festival Hall to mark his 75th birthday this year he performed works by two composers with whom he has a special affinity – Schoenberg and Beethoven. Two composers poised on the cusp of change, separated by a century, whose music was, in its own way, adventurous, revolutionary, forward-looking and distinctive. Not many people can pair Schoenberg with Beethoven to create a convincing whole, but Pollini can, and this performance showed why, at 75, he is still a master of the piano. He scurries across the stage, bird-like, bent forward, and gives the briefest of bows to the audience, as if he can’t wait to get on with the performance. And once he begins to play his quiet body language, free of unnecessary gestures or fussy mannerisms, focuses one’s attention entirely on the music, not the man. Which is how it should be.
Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op 11 were composed 100 years after Beethoven’s Op.78, and these works opened the concert. It is a great skill by any performer to open with miniatures such as these – intimate and softly-spoken, they are some of Schoenberg’s most personal works, along with the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19 which followed them. Despite a noisy infant in the corridor and much bronchial throat-clearing in the stalls, Pollini seemed impervious to these interruptions and played with concentrated focus. His bespoke Fabbrini Steinway has a bright, clean tone which suited this repertoire, and he highlighted the music’s intensity, its fleeting writing, the hints of tonality and ambiguous emotional landscapes. The Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19, are even smaller in scale, aphoristic and emotionally charged (in particular the final work, written shortly after the death of Gustav Mahler), to which Pollini brought clarity, intimacy, wit and poignancy. Rather than focus on the cerebral nature of this music, as some performers tend to, Pollini revealed the piquant harmonies and shifting colours in these works. This is not the easiest of music, for the listener, with which to open a concert programme, but Pollini’s ability to draw the audience into Schoenberg’s unsettling soundworld was convincing and compelling.
The Pathétique Sonata, one of Beethoven’s most popular, felt rather unsteady. There’s no doubting Pollini’s technical assuredness: at 75 he is still nimble and agile across the entire range of the keyboard, but the first movement seemed rushed, though it did not lack dramatic bite, and there were a number of muddy passages. The songful slow movement felt rather four-square and I craved more cantabile in that long-spun melody. The finale was a breathless gallop, not always secure, but audacious and sincere nonetheless.
Between the turbulent edifices of the Pathétique and the Appassionata came the modest two-movement Op.78, A Thérèse, which combined lyricism with intimacy and to which Pollini brought grace and charm, particularly in the first movement.
The haunting opening measures of the Appassionata recalled the Schoenberg in their concentrated intensity before the music broke free into a movement of fearless drama. Now Pollini took the music by the scruff of the neck: no uncertainty here, he tore through the movement with a taut single-mindedness, creating a movement of tension, power and savage momentum. The passagework glittered, trills had a fleeting elegance, and a sense of the overall narrative was clear throughout. The stately second movement, a theme and four variations built on a simple chordal motif, grew in statue as the note values got progressively smaller, a favourite device of Beethoven to create a sense of increased momentum. Pollini handled it with nobility and grace, his weighty style in keeping with the sonorous character of this music. The transition into the finale was masterful – control before the storm – before a tumultuous eruption sound and energy. A febrile, urgent moto perpetuo of edge-of-the seat excitement and drama. That movement alone was enough to convince that Pollini still has the hunger: assured technique underpinning a clear sense of the music’s narrative, its drama and contrasts. To quote a fellow Twitterer who attended the concert, “note-perfect upstarts take note” – which I take to mean perfection is not a prerequisite when one hears such clarity of vision and musical intent.
Two Bagatelles from the Op 126 formed the encores – the first an ethereal chorale, like the first movement of the Op 110 in miniature, Beethoven at his most philosophical and refined.