Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It's easy to forget, perhaps, that Maurizio Pollini first came to international prominence as the winner of the Chopin piano competition in Warsaw in 1960. Throughout his career he has insisted on the most serious and intellectually-challenging repertoire, whether it's the Austro-German classics or present-day music by Stockhausen, Boulez and Nono, and his approach to Chopin is distinctly unsentimental, even tough.

This is fine in its way, and you can rely on Pollini to affirm the coherent sweep of Chopin's forms, however exploratory they may be. But what was missing in the first half of his recital on Thursday, selected from Chopin's larger single-movement pieces, was a sense of spontaneous feeling or the thrill of discovery. It was particularly missed in the two pairs of Nocturnes, Op 32 and 55, whose occasional flights of fancy in the right hand were dispatched almost as if they were tiresome irrelevances rather than passing joys.

Then Pollini took far less pleasure in the charming lilt of the Third Ballade than in building up the climax with compellingly muscular work in the left hand. The Barcarolle was certainly grand but rather plain, without much sensitivity invested in details, a few dropped stitches suggesting that Pollini was only half listening to himself. At least its pulse was consistently sustained, whereas in the Berceuse the beat quickened then relaxed in a sort of seesaw - an uncharacteristically feeble kind of pseudo-expressiveness. Since Pollini rarely looks happy until the end of a recital, one often wonders what he is feeling behind that formidable technical armour - and the technique on this occasion was as strong as ever. So, in the Third Scherzo, it came as a nice surprise when he broke into vocalising at the arrival of the chorale. Ah, he must actually have been stirred! A powerful performance, too, even if the octaves were rugged rather than strictly rhythmical.

The second part of the programme was taken up by Debussy's second book of Preludes. Here, again, the problem was Pollini's impatience and reluctance to allow events to take their time: they often sounded all too planned and got out of the way as promptly as possible. "La Puerta del Vino" was pushed so hard, it ceased to sound like a habanera, and "Général Lavine" was devoid of humour or any character at all, let alone the sort of eccentricity Debussy wanted. It was hardly by chance that the best playing came at the end, in the technical tour de force of "Les Tierces Alternées" and the explosions of "Feux d'Artifice".