CLASSICAL MUSIC: Beethoven Forum; QEH, London; Pollini recital RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
Over the past two or three decades, Mozart has replaced Beethoven as the official World's Greatest Composer. But has the shift in status affected Beethoven's popularity? Record sales suggest that it hasn't. And the attendances at both the South Bank Beethoven Forum (last Saturday) and Maurizio Pollini's sixth Beethoven Sonatas concert (on Tuesday) appear to bear that out. Of course, there's the added pull of a starry name in Pollini's case. But to get reasonable-sized audiences for a whole day of lectures in the Queen Elizabeth Hall is quite an achievement, and there was no noticeable falling off when it was announced that Pollini was too ill to deliver the Forum's final lecture.

That left five lectures. As performances, these varied enormously in quality. When it came to energy and style, no one matched the two intellectual stars, George Steiner and Charles Rosen. Steiner was at his provocative best. With a splendid display of name-, place-, and time-dropping, he told us how he met the formidable Marxist thinker Georg Lukcs while the latter was under house arrest in Budapest in 1956.

"The artist," said Lukcs, "is responsible for everything that is done in his name unto the end of time." A chilling thought, especially if one considers some of the things that were done under Beethoven's name during the Third Reich. At the risk of sounding unbearably flippant, I would invite readers to think instead of the giant chocolate Mozart exhibited at Vienna's Schwechat Airport in 1991. Can Mozart be held responsible for that? I think not.

Charles Rosen's talk about physical performing problems in Beethoven's Piano Sonatas seemed, in comparison, like a delightfully unstructured ramble. But it was so full of love, humour and performer's insight that one treasured every word. The three full-time academics who also spoke seemed dull and dry in comparison. A pity, as they too had their insights to offer, especially Dr John Rink, whose talk on the relationship between composition and improvisation in the sonatas was, in content, if not in style, very thought-provoking. Academics tend to be suspicious of skilled presenters. But if communication matters, it's hard to make a clean differentiation between style and substance. Beethoven - a spectacularly theatrical performer himself - surely appreciated that.

Pollini's recital, to a packed Royal Festival Hall, culminated in the grandest of all sonatas, the Hammerklavier, Op 106. The thought of wrestling with that Leviathan would be enough for most pianists, but Pollini preceded it with two other sonatas which, relatively short as they are, concentrate worlds into brief time-spans: Op 90 in F minor and Op 101 in A. As overall conceptions, these were marvellous performances.

Listening to Pollinian Beethoven can be like watching a map unfold. Everything has its appointed place, and the sense of that ultimate rightness is enough to hold the attention. The emergence of the quiet coda from the frenzied climax in the Hammerklavier's slow movement was a very Pollinian triumph. Tradition demands a pause here but Beethoven doesn't actually mark one, and Pollini took him at face value. It wasn't all intellectual power; there was a very physical energy too, especially in the Herculean fugal finale. I just wish Pollini could have showed more evidence that he actually enjoys the sounds. There was little sensuous beauty in his playing; some passages were surprisingly matter-of-fact. As so often, Pollini's Beethoven left this listener impressed, but not stirred.

Final recital (Opp 109, 110, 111): 7.30pm Sunday 15 June. Booking: 0171- 960 4242 Stephen Johnson

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