Since Maurizio Pollini began his five-concert ‘project’ with the first half of Bach’s ‘Well-tempered Klavier’ - pianism’s Old Testament - it was appropriate that he should follow it with the last three works in Beethoven’s sonata cycle, aka pianism’s New Testament.
But as he launched into Opus 109, it became clear that he was going to adopt the same approach as he did with Bach. After seven bars of compressed exposition, this movement takes wing with diaphanous grace, but though Pollini’s touch had transparency it only fitfully conveyed the magic; the prestissimo movement didn’t rise above the efficiently smooth; likewise with the theme and variations of the finale. In the past Pollini has often exuded stress, but here he seemed more relaxed than was good for the music: there was no sense of wonder at a gradually unfolding beauty.
With the proto-Romantic Opus 110 things got worse, with metronomic precision ironing out the subtle glories of the first movement, and a total absence of wickedness in the folk-song scherzo. But the real cop-out came with the linked laments and fugues whose vertiginous passions first plumb the depths of despair, then rise again in triumph. In this extraordinary sequence of movements, Beethoven created a new dramatic language which the performer must literally enact. But Pollini seemed like a spectator at the event, and a pretty unengaged one at that.
And so, with sinking hearts, we arrived at the great Opus 111. This was Beethoven’s majestic farewell to his instrument, and also his test-bed for yet more creative miracles, the first of which is an introduction of breathtaking grandeur. After ironing out its peaks and precipices, Pollini went on to tame the black granitic fury of the first movement, before doing the same to the second. The syncopated section, in which Beethoven anticipates the blues a century before they happened, was simply flaccid; the last ten minutes, in which he communes with the stars, were prosaic rather than sublime.
The word which best sums up this very disappointing event – which lasted sixty minutes without an interval – is parsimonious. Come back Barenboim; come on in any young tyro whose spirit moves between heaven and hell, as Beethoven’s did.