Pollini offers regal Schumann and Chopin in Boston return

October 08, 2014
By David Wright

Maurizio Pollini performed Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Symphony Hall played host to royalty Sunday afternoon, as pianist Maurizio Pollini, performing in Boston for the first time since 2010, and opening the season for Celebrity Series of Boston, bestowed the music of Schumann and Chopin upon a capacity audience of his loyal subjects.

Their loud acclaim was well-earned.  Deep study of the music and a half century on the recital stage have given everything Pollini does an air of authority few performers living today can match.

It is the business of critics to agree or disagree with how the musician played the piece.  On this occasion, such thoughts seemed almost beside the point.  One was a guest in the Kingdom of Pollini, and this was how music is played there.  The critic is invited to have a look around, and describe what he sees.

One saw something of a lion in winter, at 72 slowed more by illness than by age.  His long absence from this city was a result of several canceled engagements, and he has also canceled dates on his current U.S. tour to conserve his strength.

On Sunday, Pollini did not stun the listener with almost superhuman technical brilliance, as he had so often in the past.  Some passages were blurred, some notes were missed.

It didn’t matter.  The energy, the searching intellect, the sonorous piano tone, and the utter confidence in one’s direction that have gripped audiences over the decades were fully on view.

Add to that a touch of subjectivity—more than a touch, actually, in tempos that seemed to fluctuate in stops and starts and sudden jumps to the next phrase.  A waywardness that might seem intolerable in another pianist was saved by Pollini’s ability to keep the goal of the passage always in view.

And just as one began to despair of ever hearing a bar played in time, the pianist would right the vessel and, for a page or two, sweep the listener along on a wave of irresistible momentum.

Of course, Schumann’s youthful piano inspirations are some of the most subjective music on the planet—and at times, the most impetuous as well.  Even a comparative trifle like the Arabesque, Op. 18, which served as the appetizer to Sunday’s program, abandoned its tripping little tune to make an unexpectedly impassioned plea at the end.

In this piece, his calling card for the afternoon, Pollini declared his independence of note values and bar lines, when the mood suited him.  No one seemed to mind.

In Kreisleriana, Op. 16, Schumann depicted the variegated dreams and fantasies of the fictional Kapellmeister Kreisler, an eccentric old musician invented by the writer E.T.A. Hoffmann.  The first and last of the eight pieces in the set, related thematically but extremely different in character, may both be portraits of Kreisler; the first as he sees himself, a wild and crazy guy, and the other as the rest of the world sees him, a curious old gent with a hopping gait.

In Pollini’s hands, the first piece was a furious dash leavened by moments of tenderness, delicately phrased.  The pianist’s clear, ringing top notes, an invaluable asset throughout the program, sang out in the second piece’s spun-out melodies.

More voices joined in during the third piece, whose scale figures intertwined and moved apart, a challenge for a player with only two hands.  Pollini not only answered that challenge, but gave each voice its own timbre, as if not just a piano but a violin, clarinet, and cello were playing together.

The variety of timbres and tonal effects heard in Sunday’s recital, and in general the clarity and fullness of the piano’s tone from the most gauzy pianissimo to the most powerful fortissimo, were attributable not only to the pianist’s superb ear and technique, but to the instrument that travels with him on tour.

Members of the audience approached the stage at intermission for a closer look at the name “Fabbrini” stamped in bright gold under the piano’s familiar Steinway logo.  For piano fans in the know, the word might as well have been “Ferrari,” for this was one nimble and powerful instrument: a Steinway manufactured in Hamburg (a prestige factor to begin with), then modified by Angelo Fabbrini, piano technician to the stars (including, besides Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter and András Schiff), at his workshop in Pescaro, Italy.

On Sunday, man and instrument were able to conjure remarkable sounds ranging from dark and veiled to bright and forward, as the mood of the moment dictated.  And if this piano-Ferrari perhaps encouraged the man to take some of the curves a little too fast, it was an exciting ride.

Given the presumed responsiveness of the instrument, it was surprising that Schumann’s skipping dotted rhythms—something of an obsession with him—often came out blurred in Sunday’s performance.  This was probably attributable not to the hall or the piano, but to a pianist whose default mode was “in a hurry.”

In any case, in Schumann’s last movement, Pollini elected not to cloak the old Kapellmeister in mystery as some pianists do, but to paint him objectively, in bright daylight, with his hopping walk a bit smoothed out—the outer man in sharp contrast to the fervent inner visions heard moments before.

The concert’s second half was devoted to Chopin, a composer who (unlike the volatile young Schumann) seemed to appeal to Pollini’s mastery of large-scale musical architecture and line.  His performance of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, began in the race car again, but found understated eloquence in the second theme of the opening movement, broad sweep in the third theme group (which can sound rather busy), and a powerful through line amid the turbulence of the development.

Pollini’s technique and energy got him through the daunting scherzo in style, and the mellow trio, while fluctuating in tempo, didn’t drag.  Leaving rubato behind for the moment, Pollini let the inexorable tread of the funeral march speak for itself, conjuring the cortège from near-silence; the trio melody seemed to float in space, an angel’s voice over an accompaniment almost vanishing in the distance.

The sonata’s brief, atonal finale was a mere swirl of chilly wind, no individual notes discernable in it–a remarkable feat for man and instrument.

Pollini exercised his royal privilege to depart entirely from convention in his interpretation of Chopin’s Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57.  Instead of the hypnotic steady rock of the cradle, phrases sped up or slowed down according to the pianist’s inspiration, while he spun out the composer’s dazzling embellishments of the simple tune.  It was a fervent rendition, but good luck getting that child to go to sleep.

The scheduled program concluded with Chopin’s well-known Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat major, Op. 53, in a performance that was vividly alive every moment and also powerful in its overarching design.

Colorful details, such as the trumpet fanfares in the first episode, were present as rarely before.  Bouncing up off the bench for repeated chords, Pollini seemed to revel in the amount of gorgeous fortissimo sound he could build up on his Steinway-Fabbrini.  And the excitement of the octave-ostinato episode seemed to ripple through the rest of the piece to the satisfying coda.

Observing a custom Pollini is old enough to remember (and Itzhak Perlman still follows), the announced program was on the short side, leaving plenty of room for encores.  Pollini obliged with two substantial ones, both by Chopin: a taut, expressive performance of the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 1, followed by the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op.39, propulsive and splendidly dramatic.

And with that, the royal audience was over.  The listeners stood and cheered lustily, celebrating a long wait well ended.


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