Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London, review: His playing had a watchmaker’s dry precision

The Italian pianist performed Schoenberg and Beethoven for his second recital at the Southbank Centre

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​This great Italian poet of the keyboard is now 75, but he still keeps his annual double tryst with the Southbank Centre. Earlier this month he gave a Chopin and Debussy recital, and for this second event it was Schoenberg and Beethoven: all composers whose music it has been his life-work to interpret. But he’s a nervy beast, and his playing can be very uneven.

First up were Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces Opus 11, followed by the same composer’s Six Little Piano Pieces Opus 19. In the first set the composer was still working uneasily within the realm of tonality, and in the second he had proclaimed himself free of it. Pollini’s playing had a watchmaker’s dry precision, while judiciously allowing shafts of emotion to shine through.

We had been looking forward to seeing what he would make of Beethoven’s hackneyed Sonata Pathétique, but were terribly disappointed. His playing in the Allegro was hurried and technically messy, while the great Adagio had no mystery, and the Rondo came and went with brisk impatience. How on earth would Pollini survive the much greater technical demands of the late Sonata à Thérèse?

Brilliantly was the answer, with a lovely piece of pianistic tightrope-walking. And if the Appassionata, which followed, had smudges galore, it also had a chaste beauty. Then, with a smile, came two Beethoven Bagatelles as encores. These were perfection incarnate: job done.