Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

Judging by the furious disagreements in the foyer during the interval, and the arguments later on the net, the first event in the Pollini Project has divided people as piano recitals rarely do. In five concerts Maurizio Pollini will give us his musical life-story from Bach to Boulez, and it was perfectly appropriate that it should begin with the keyboard’s Old Testament: Book One of Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Klavier’.

The standard criticism by non-admirers is that Pollini is all head and no heart, and such people will certainly have felt vindicated here. For me, things didn’t start auspiciously, with the pedalling heavy, the voice brisk and businesslike, and every chance for demonstrativeness passed up in favour of ironclad restraint. But as the fourth prelude broke into arioso song, followed by a fugue with massive momentum, I began to feel comfortable with what Pollini was doing.

Ornamentation was eschewed, with the pace almost unvaryingly metronomic. The result was that his occasional colour-shifts and infinitesimal rubatos became big events, as the preludes and accompanying fugues made their progress through the keys: the ninth fugue had a sulphurous combustibility, the fourteenth had a choral quality, the nineteenth came over like a peal of bells. And when he did let rip in two furiously-driven preludes, the effect was galvanic. In the final pairing, with the prelude’s seemingly endless walking-bass giving way to a gravely interrogative fugue, the work reached a magnificently challenging close.

So how does one of the most important pianists alive measure up to Bach’s greatest interpreters? The negative answer is that Pollini doesn’t have the poetry of Edwin Fischer, or the serene intellectualism of Rosalind Tureck; he doesn’t have Sviatoslav Richter’s exquisite capacity to characterise each piece as a self-contained world. And he certainly doesn’t have Glenn Gould’s joyous clarity of articulation: Pollini’s fast passages are his weakest, and are now quite often scumbled.

But he has something else, which strikes me as invaluable: an ability to see into the heart of each piece, and to present it true and unadorned. The expressiveness in Pollini’s Bach is all in the structure, the architecture. He’s the son of a modernist architect, and has inherited that profession’s lucid gaze.

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