Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Online

There are classic Maurizio Pollini recordings – one in particular – whose steely brilliance and forensic precision have elicited admiration and even quiet disbelief from his most distinguished colleagues.

The fingers are more fallible now, still intimidating but less frightening. Pollini, the elder, is a more humane pianist and as such a more vulnerable one.

There was something quite humbling about the Beethoven half of this recital. The very first notes he played – the arpeggiated D minor chord which opens the “Tempest” Sonata Op.31 No.2 – were almost casually pensive, the two crotchets and a minim following them lost in some uncharted no man’s land. Then came the contrasting allegro idea to set up the yin and yang of the movement, inner calm, outward turmoil – or in Pollini’s case perhaps the reverse. It was interesting to note how now it was the quiet contemplation and resonating silences (those moments in the eye of this particular tempest) that made more effect here than the seismic upheavals. Time was when it would have been quite the opposite. The central adagio bore a stern serenity, the old Pollini objectivity, or you might say scrutiny, now showing signs of relaxing.

Essentially we are no longer dazzled by outward brilliance at the expense of inner light. Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata Op.57 was full of sound and fury but one felt there was more of a human being wrestling with its tremulous uncertainty. The apparent contentment of the slow movement variations fooled no one, the headlong scales of the finale, above all its presto coda, turned superhuman effort into defiance.

Sadly, effort – or rather effortful – was the word which defined Pollini’s account of Schumann’s great C major Fantasie in the second half of the programme. This was a struggle. From bar one the music resolutely refused to take flight. The extravagance of the opening idea, which can and should instantly transport us like an out of body experience, to another level of awareness, felt mired in indecision. Perhaps that was Pollini’s intention to lend the music a more disturbed, downcast quality – but that’s not, I fancy, what Schumann wrote. Nor surely did he intend the middle movement to weigh so heavily. Concentration seemed to desert Pollini as accident after accident muddied the textures.

Thereafter there was a glimpse of the old dreamer in his signature Chopin but the abandon of Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor for my part brought relief more than genuine exhilaration.