About the Album
The Art of Maurizio Pollini
This is a 3-CD limited-edition hardcover book, with repertoire chosen personally by the artist, consisting of complete works from his repertoire – so, from Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Chopin’s op. 25 Études to complete concertos by Beethoven and Mozart. As an added bonus there is the 1960 performance of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto from the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.
Architecture and Passion
For at least two generations, Maurizio Pollini’s fastidious technical standards, unflappable consistency, uncompromising programs of wide-ranging repertoire, and his fierce determination to serve the composer first and foremost have represented the modern pianist’s gold standard. Active as ever as he enters his eighth decade, Pollini continues to evolve artistically. This milestone birthday has also provided an occasion for him to take stock by way of this judiciously culled yet quite personal three-disc overview of his Deutsche Grammophon discography – benchmark recordings for many critics and piano mavens.
The intellectual curiosity and artistic refinement that characterize Pollini’s career can be traced back to his exceptional childhood. He was born on 5 January 1942 in Milan to Gino Pollini – a key figure of the Italian Rationalist movement who, as one of the “Group of Seven”, helped introduce modern architecture to Italy in the 1930s – and Renata Melotti, who had studied both piano and singing. Her brother was the renowned Italian sculptor Fausto Melotti, who played piano seriously in his early years and exerted a strong, nurturing influence on his youthful nephew, not just musically but also fostering Pollini’s lifelong interest in the visual arts. “I grew up in a house with art and artists,” Pollini told the Guardian’s Nicholas Wroe. “Old works and modern works co-existed together as part of life. It went without saying.”
Given this environment, perhaps it was inevitable that Pollini gravitated towards the piano. He began lessons at six with Carlo Lonati, giving his first public concert in 1952 at the age of ten. Other strong childhood musical impressions included a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos he received after having his tonsils removed and attending a Toscanini rehearsal at La Scala. “I also remember Dimitri Mitropoulos coming to conduct Berg’s Wozzeck at La Scala,” Pollini recalled to the BBC’s Ivan Hewitt. “What a scandal that caused! And so many great pianists came: Walter Gieseking, Wilhelm Backhaus, Clara Haskil, Edwin Fischer. And, of course, (Arthur) Rubinstein.”
From 1955 until 1959 Pollini studied with Carlo Vidusso at the Milan Conservatory. Also a pupil of Lonati, Vidusso enjoyed a high-profile performing career, apparently becoming the first pianist to perform all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Études in recital in Italy. Eventually a hand disorder forced him to focus on teaching. By 1957 his 15-year-old pupil Maurizio Pollini drew attention by winning second prize in the Geneva Competition and for a highly acclaimed Milan recital that featured all 24 Chopin Études – no easy undertaking for a pianist of any age!
Three years later, Pollini’s victory in the 1960 Warsaw Chopin Competition marked the apex of his youthful career and the beginning of his rise to international fame. At 18, he was the youngest of all 89 entrants and clearly impressed the jury chaired by his childhood hero Arthur Rubinstein which also included such luminaries as Magda Tagliaferro, Heinrich Neuhaus and Nadia Boulanger. In his memoir My Many Years, Rubinstein declared that Pollini “showed a complete supremacy over the others”, and he reportedly declared “that boy plays technically better than any of us jurors”. Pollini’s final-round performance of Chopin’s E Minor Concerto on CD 3 documents the jury’s decision and Rubinstein’s claim.
Pollini’s withdrawal in the competition’s aftermath may have taken the piano world aback, yet, in retrospect, seems absolutely in keeping with the pianist’s thoughtful nature and his instinct for long-term planning. “The natural thing for me to have done having won”, he told Wroe, “was to play concert after concert after concert. It’s true that I wasn’t willing to become a Chopin specialist, but the idea that I was a recluse really has been overstated. I was very young and thought I needed more time to develop my musical interests and a bigger repertoire. I wanted to explore other arts and other things. So I stayed away from concerts for about a year and a half, and when I returned I didn’t take on too many. But I always enjoyed performing and I made my debut in London in 1963. By the end of the 60s my performance schedule had extended itself to a more normal rhythm.” He also had some lessons with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the leading Italian pianist of the day, who coincidentally shared Pollini’s birthday.
In essence, Pollini in his 20s cultivated the foundation upon which the rest of career has flourished, from the thematically unified programs he has evolved for his artistic residencies at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s South Bank Centre to his fervent championing of such similarly uncompromising, visionary contemporary composers as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Among the works written especially for and premiered by Pollini are Luigi Nono’s … sofferte onde serene… and Giacomo Manzoni’s Masse: Omaggio a Edgard Varèse. It was not insignificant that his first DG release featured two earlier 20th-century repertoire pillars, Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. It was Rubinstein, in fact, who commissioned the latter – although he played them throughout his long career, he never agreed to release his interpretation in a commercial recording lest the piano world discover his (admitted) textual alterations. Not only does Pollini render Petrushka exactly as written, but he does so with incomparable poise and suppleness, unerring balances, and a control of tone color and dynamics that allows no vagaries, splinters or unintended gestures.
These observations apply equally to Pollini’s Beethoven. The taut elegance and expressive classicism of his 1978 “Emperor” Concerto, a collaboration with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, ranks among the work’s finest recordings. Perhaps the “purposeful bleakness and icy linearity” that American critic Harris Goldsmith ascribed to Pollini’s late Beethoven sonata recordings make more sense when listening to, rather than reading about, the pianist’s Opus 111. Suffice it to say that the clarity and intensity with which he untangles the first movement’s gnarly counterpoint or the Arietta’s long, seamlessly delineated chains of trills leave most mortal pianism behind. Similarly, Liszt’s late works generally were more about ideas than pianistic prowess, yet La lugubre gondola I and R.W. – Venezia require unusual attention to voicing and tone color to be projected across the footlights in recital or, in the studio, through the unforgiving microphone. Rehearing Pollini’s three selections from the first book of Debussy’s Préludes Book evokes memories for this listener of the pianist playing “La cathédrale engloutie” in Carnegie Hall, where the multi-leveled dynamic gradations and subtle pedalling effects took into account the venue’s acoustics as much as the concert grand’s responsiveness.
Carnegie Hall was one of many stops on a 1985 tour devoted to Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, yet Pollini took 20 years to rethink and reprocess the music before finally committing the 24 Preludes and Fugues to disc in 2008/09. By contrast, the pianist willingly relinquished his short-lived sideline as a conductor, although his leadership of Mozart’s C minor Concerto K. 491 from the keyboard reveals not the slightest compromise in soloist-orchestra synchronicity.
Despite Pollini’s successful determination not to be a specialist, he always seems to come back to Chopin, revisiting and recording the composer’s larger-scaled works such as the Ballades, Scherzos, Second and Third Sonatas, Preludes and Nocturnes, rather than the Waltzes or Mazurkas. One might include the Études, at least as Pollini plays them, with a sense of each opus number’s cumulative arc. Pollini also proves the exception to the legendary pianist Josef Hofmann’s axiom that no pianist has been capable of playing all of the Chopin Études equally well. Again, Harris Goldsmith astutely and accurately observed how, under Pollini’s fingers, “every one of these treacherous finger-twisters is negotiated with astounding perfection – velocity, even articulation, vibrant brilliance, and a wonderful succinct, uncluttered attitude towards phrasing, dynamics and rubato.”
On the topic of Chopin, Pollini has proved equally articulate away from the keyboard. “There is this fascinating dualism in Chopin,” the pianist told BBC writer Ivan Hewitt. “On the one hand the music is so passionate, but it is also very strict and has a kind of aristocratic nobility. You know Chopin was so prudish he thought parts of Don Giovanni were vulgar! It is very difficult to combine these two sides of his character.” Pollini could very well be describing the consistency of his own artistic character, one that achieves a perfect fusion of architecture and passion.