Pollini’s elegant exploration offers subtle rewards in Chopin, Schumann

October 13, 2015
By George Grella
Maurizio Pollini performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

Maurizio Pollini performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall.

The concert pianist is a paradox. A vast amount of the solo keyboard repertoire was written for private and small-scale performances, if not for the singular audience of the pianists themselves. Yet people fill large concert halls, as they did Carnegie Hall Sunday afternoon eavesdropping on their private thoughts and interior experiences while expecting a public display.

Sunday, the pianist under the gaze of thousands of eyes was Maurizio Pollini, a great musician who embodies the paradox. Pollini has been performing for half a century, and the most consistent criticism of his playing has been that he can be emotionally and expressively reticent. Perhaps he’s merely misunderstood. Perhaps if the audience would listen in, and not expect flamboyant gestures, they would find him emotionally and expressively extravagant.

In front of the Carnegie audience, Pollini played music from Schumann and Chopin that was ideal for private exploration. When his playing was at its best, his hands and mind were in instant synchronization, and the considerable weight of his introspection burst through in every note.

Pollini is not a young man, and has a bit of a stoop and a slight shuffle in his walk, but once he sat down on his piano bench, he immediately attacked the music with verve. Schumann’s Allegro in B minor, Op. 8, was the first piece, and it spilled forth like water from a burst dam. The Allegro is a torrent of ideas to begin with, and Pollini’s pace was at times at the edge of frantic. He has superb technique, but he could not present the music clearly, and the performance seemed misjudged.

Or he might have needed something with which to warm up, in public, and Op. 8 served the bill. His playing of the Fantasy in C Major, Op.17,  was altogether different, and marvelous.

Schumann might be the most private composer of all, his pieces a direct reflection of his personal troubles and obsessions. The Fantasy is also one of the great romantic piano works, music full of internal reveries. Pollini played it poetically, in a lovely and refreshing plain-spoken way. He maintained a firm sense of rhythmic articulation, and played each phrase with a transparent sparkle that revealed their vocal qualities. The rhythms gave the piece dramatic forward motion, and Pollini added a sense of repose each time he introduced new themes.

Like an elegant poem structure around simple language, Pollini’s interpretation emphasized Schumann’s direct communication and his imagination and formal sophistication. The playing was beautiful on its own objective terms, the piano chiming under Pollini’s hands, each note with the clear outline and brilliance of an ice cube dropped into a glass.

He brought the same interpretive strength and expression to Chopin, after intermission, as well as some more inconsistency. Pollini chose an interesting mix of pieces: the F-sharp Major Barcarolle, Op. 60, the first two Op. 55 Nocturnes, the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61, and the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39.

The Barcarolle sounded wonderful under Pollini’s light touch, and even when the music darkened and thickened, everything was clearly defined. Again, the consistent surety of rhythm was essential to the sound and expression of the music—Pollini’s right hand was fluid and free, while the left set an unerring foundation.

The Nocturnes were a little off, some of the energy and clarity was left out of the playing. It seemed as if Pollini was unsure what he wanted to do, perhaps caught between leaving behind old ideas about the music without yet refining new ones. The music dipped in and out of murkiness.

Pollini may have been feeling some fatigue—the Polonaise-fantaisie was also not as clean, the lines only intermittently standing out from the overall textures. There was a start and stop quality to the interpretation, but there was also a stimulating sense of introspection. Pollini had plenty to say about the music, even if his articulation was not impeccable. The tempestuous coda snapped everything back into focus.

The sturm und drang playing of the Scherzo was exciting, but Pollini played it with a surprisingly one-dimensional view, as if the music was just a depiction of turbulence. Still, the quality of the full concert brought out multiple ovations from the audience, to which Pollini responded with three Chopin encores.

As happens so often, the encores had arguably the best playing. It was a pleasure to hear his thoughts, and his technique was once again utterly clear and expressive. The Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, was absolutely scintillating, the dramatic runs at the end biting and intense. And his closing Nocturne was a comforting way to bid the audience “buona sera.”

Maurizio Pollini will play Beethoven and Schoenberg at Carnegie Hall, 3 p.m., Sunday, October 25 carnegiehall.org

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