Beethoven and Chopin are not an obvious coupling, but they are the two composers with whom, perhaps, Maurizio Pollini is most associated - Chopin, because winning the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1960 brought Pollini fame at the age of 19, and Beethoven, because Pollini has the essential grit.
He is a noticeably nervous performer - it must be hard to be described as a legend. And it isn't just the pressure of living up to his reputation which causes Pollini to fly through a piece of music like the wind, but a superfluity of technical ease and - dare I say it? - a distinct impression of over-familiarity with what he's playing.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, he took time in his Festival Hall recital (sold out, of course) to gain his composure. Beginning with Beethoven's Sonata in D major, Op 10/3, his fingers ran away with him in the opening Presto, so that certain passages were a mere gabble. And in the slow second movement there was still a feeling of impatience, as rhythmic values were skimped. The Minuet was fine, but in the finale, again, Pollini's undue haste snipped the edge off Beethoven's humour.
In the Pathétique Sonata, there were touches, in the lively outer movements, of the sublime, but also glimpses of the abyss, as the music rushed giddily by. The Adagio cantabile was curiously matter-of-fact, devoid of any singing quality.
And so, after the interval, to Chopin's 24 Preludes, which Pollini preceded with the later C sharp minor prelude, Op 45, played in a distinctly unsentimental fashion - you might say it was almost casual.
Chopin designed the 24 Preludes as a cycle, each piece in a different key and distilling a distinct character. Pollini's sense of sweep and the broad effects these contrasts make was stronger than his attention to expressive content. To someone unfamiliar with this music, Pollini certainly showed how it should go, and there was nothing controversial in his performance. But neither were there any revelations, and sometimes even basic attributes were ignored: for instance, the third prelude didn't glide by lightly, as Chopin directed, nor did the Raindrop prelude resonate with sustained tone. The haunting A flat prelude (number 17) was almost brutally handled, and distinctly unpoetic, while that in B flat (number 21) - another "singing" piece - was completely charmless.
True, there were no difficulties with playing the notes correctly and fluently, but one expects something more than technical ease from a pianist of this eminence. The audience, assuming they were hearing a "great pianist", nevertheless cheered regardless.
For his first encore, the maestro delivered Chopin's Etude in A flat major, Op 25/1, as if it were a technical study by Czerny. He might as well have been chopping onions.
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