Pollini / Perl Beethoven cycles Royal Festival Hall / Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
London is currently being treated to two complete cycles of Beethoven sonatas for pianoforte - in both cases a large modern concert grand, with no so much as a nod towards the sensibilities of period performance. Both cycles will be completed in seven recitals, but whereas the young Chilean pianist, Alfredo Perl, is giving a tour, dipping and diving into the 32 works, comparing and contrasting early with late, Maurizio Pollini is providing a precious journey, strictly following the chronological order in which Beethoven wrote his works (although omitting the Op 49), so bearing Beethoven's extraordinary compositional soul.

Perl began his cycle in late October playing in the perfect chamber music surroundings of the Wigmore Hall. He has reached his fourth recital and will finish in late January with Beethoven's final three works. Pollini, in the Royal Festival Hall, is lagging behind with only his second concert now completed since beginning in late November - his cycle ends next June. By chance, both pianists last week began their recitals with the three Op 10 sonatas forming a first half - giving, perhaps, too little weight to the scope of these works. Whether it was nerves or a misjudgement of the acoustic (different as they are), both pianists seemed to step on the gas in the explosive first movement of Op 10 No 1, notes, accents and dotted rhythms gobbled up and articulation blurred. But in other respects these works epitomised the difference between the two artists - Pollini conjuring up moments of extraordinary intensity - the painted chromaticism of the F minor movement (Op 10 No 2), the hooded beginning of the D minor Largo (Op 10 No 3) - to Perl's intermittently breezy and matter-of-fact delivery.

Perl devoted his second half to Op 54 and Op 57 ("Appassionata"), displaying a well-controlled, clean, glittering technique but resisting the temptation to overplay the drama of Op 57, although showing a young man's passionate response to Beethoven's restless surging. Perl's keen sense of dynamic balance was particularly impressive.

If Pollini had seemed tense in his first half, occasionally abbreviating rests in fast movements and creating a slightly queasy sense of metrical instability, the second half was altogether more relaxed. In the two modest Op 14 sonatas - Beethoven in sunny mood - Pollini brought playing of touching simplicity with a wonderfully singing cantilena, even if in the E minor Allegretto of No 1, phrases were still oddly thrown away. Pollini's recital ended, as it had begun, in C minor, but how staggering the contrast between Op 10 and Op 13, despite little more than a year between them. A more captivating and more intelligent performance of Op 13 ("Pathetique") would be hard to find. Pollini's sense of dynamic architecture in the first movement, driven as it is by the contrast between the recitative-like grave and passionate allegro, was breathtaking. And in the sublime second movement "song without words" and final rondo, Pollini demonstrated how great playing can be achieved through quiet, undemonstrative means.