Maurizio Pollini, Wiener Philharmoniker, Herbert von Karajan
Total Playing Time 1:06:19
Pollini the Classicist
Millions of words, in dozens of languages, must by now have been written about the playing of Maurizio Pollini, one of the great pianists of our time. Much of this vast output of journalism has related to the rich store of recordings which he and Deutsche Grammophon have together created, in the course of a relationship that continues to be as fruitful now as it was 30 years ago. Yet you can read through all those articles, all those reviews, all those interviews (which are by no means as “rare” as legend has it: Pollini is a most approachable and personable individual) and still find little evidence of the particular quality that lies at the heart of this exceptional artist’s music-making. It can be put in four words: Pollini is a classicist.
To be fair, this would be easier to perceive if Pollini had performed and recorded more of Mozart’s music than he has. His only recording of the composer, the A major Piano Concerto K. 488 (coupled with the F major Concerto K. 459), was made with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1976, a collaboration that Pollini remembers with happiness: “It was a kind of miracle,” he has said. Underlying classical values can be more difficult to sense when surrounded by Pollini’s astonishing resources of virtuosity. His recording of K. 488 is therefore all the more instructive in that this is one of Mozart’s least virtuosic concertos. (If you find the choice surprising, think of Pollini’s interest in Liszt’s late piano pieces – Unstern!, R.W.-Venezia, La lugubre gondola – music which is among the most anti-virtuosic ever composed.)
Pollini delivers the first movement of Mozart’s beautiful concerto with a balance of simplicity, intelligence and an engaging lack of self-consciousness which only the finest musicians seem able to achieve. True, he plays Mozart’s own cadenza like an étude, with the high-speed articulation and incisiveness for which his virtuosity is so famous, but a cadenza is surely an appropriate place for a later age’s pianistic style to comment on that of Mozart’s own time.
In the Adagio’s closing stages, where the piano part is reduced to a sequence of single, widely spaced notes (which Mozart himself might or might not have linked with improvised decoration), Pollini draws the individual tones together into a coherent line, within which each note resonates as a distinct, vibrant musical entity – something of which only a supremely thoughtful technician is capable. (Perhaps Pollini’s interest in Webern’s music – which presents a not dissimilar musical agenda – has here inspired such memorable results.)
The lively, yet not too quick tempo for the final rondo is exactly as implied by Mozart’s marking of Allegro assai. Pollini’s manner is at once contained and playful, finding the right balance between classical poise and the release of feeling on which a concluding rondo of this kind insists.
Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto is more typical of Pollini’s repertory, with its intersection of powerful virtuosity and exploratory musical thought. Pollini has often spoken of this quality in Beethoven’s music and its connection with the late 20th-century works he likes to include in his recitals. “I find the only interesting [new] works are those composed in an uncompromisingly modern musical language, as Beethoven’s was in his time,” he has said. “The only way to create important works is through a totally contemporary and difficult language. This is not perversity – it is a creative necessity. […] The composers must follow their own clear way – and the public must follow after them.”
Pollini delivers the piano’s opening flourishes of Beethoven’s concerto with a combination of glittering precision and thundering firepower that will satisfy the most dedicated connoisseur of keyboard pyrotechnics. The movement then proceeds at a classically brisk but not overly quick tempo, which allows for a marvellous range of light and shade. Some moments to savour include the tone of understated mystery at the start of the development section and the precise and telling shift of pace – just a touch slower – that marks the recapitulation’s journey into new harmonic regions.
The second movement begins with the Vienna Philharmonic strings not so much playing as seeming to sing the music like a choir. The combination of this with the classical simplicity of Pollini’s response ought not to work, but it does. The secret perhaps lies in his and Böhm’s unerring choice of tempo. Manyartists respond to Beethoven’s Adagio un poco moto marking either by ignoring the last three words (so that the result sounds like a dirge) or by overemphasizing them with some-thing resembling a brisk Andante. It seems that only the finest musicians have the clarity of vision to get these apparently straightforward things right.
The final rondo – again, a classical form articulated by Beethoven in a much expanded but still recognizably classical manner and spirit – has Pollini once again responding with an ideal tempo, speedy but not rushed. This allows him to unleash reserves of virtuosic energy which combine his trademark firepower with a springy, truly rondo-like athleticism. Those who savour the fine details of keyboard technique will be enthralled by the vibrant, crystal-clear octave trills towards the end of the movement, and by the brilliant whirl of octave scales with which Pollini rounds out his ascent of this Himalayan peak of the piano repertory. Meanwhile, from a broader musical perspective, this recording also constitutes a triumph of truly classical values which few other pianists today would be able to envisage, let alone encompass in performance.
(This is the booklet text by Malcolm Hayes, author, and freelance writer on classical music. Malcolm Hayes contributes to the “Sunday Telegraph” (London) and has recently completed an edition of William Walton’s letters.)
Mediterranean Grandezza and Teutonic Furor
Encountering Maurizio Pollini in a private situation, one is continually taken aback by the warmth, openness and lack of affectation with which this exceptional artist, so shy in the concert hall, will entrust other people in his confidence. Pollini is quite aware of his extraordinarily high standards and abilities – a matchless technical mastery that often leaves the competition standing – and yet he remains without a trace of vanity. Superficial straining for effects is anathema both to him personally and to his scrupulous playing, which always remains totally concentrated and subjected to strict control, right down to the tiniest nuances. There can be no doubt that Pollini reads scores more exactingly and thoroughly than others do. The sounds he produces as a result often explore undiscovered territory, pianistic as well as interpretative.
Thanks to his phenomenal technical gifts and enormously developed intellect, Pollini’s music making is consistently informed by that fundamental clarity and security which are his basic prerequisites for all musical discourse. And yet, ultimately, he regards technique, however flawless, purely as a means. “More important”, he said to me in an interview, “is what is produced with it.” The goal must always and only be that of individual expression: “Expressiveness, spontaneity andintellect belong together inseparably.”
The premises by which Pollini swears also determine his choice of musical partners. It was therefore only natural that the conductor of his second recording of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos from 1992/93 – the earlier readings are under the direction of Karl Böhm and Eugen Jochum – should have been his friend and colleague of long standing, Claudio Abbado. Not only does the new team justify this remake, but also the fact that the cycle was recorded live in the Berlin Philharmonie. The triumvirate Beethoven-Pollini-Abbado was firmly established by this time, having already been highly acclaimed for performances of all five concertos in New York in 1987. The accompanying ensemble on that occasion was the Vienna Philharmonic, who bestowed their “Honorary Ring” upon Pollini in conjunction with the project. In the wake of these successful performances, Berlin followed suit. Pollini had made his Berlin Philharmonic début in 1970 with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, and the new series of performances from the Philharmonie – of which Concertos 3 and 4 are documented here – is no less worthy of going down in the annals than that earlier historical event. These interpretations are blessed with perfect solo- and teamwork and virtually unsurpassed in the degree of accord between performers and the sense of spaciousness. The acclamation of the Berlin audiences was suitably frenzied.
In particular, it is Pollini’s extreme drive, his breathtaking grasp of formal tension and limpid cantabile playing which come into their own in these live performances, far more, for example, than in the more “classically” profiled and poised productions with Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic a decade and a half earlier. One senses that Pollini is not put off by the presence of an audience, as was Glenn Gould, for example. In the conversation already mentioned, he himself had this to say on the matter: “I think the interpreter’s task is not one of retreat but rather to communicate music to the audience in concert. That should be his function. […] For me audience contact is imperative, because that is the moment in which I fulfil my function. […] I don’t feel isolated on the podium. On the contrary: I can sense the audience’s mood very closely throughout the entire concert, and there are certain moments when I feel it very strongly. The audience can greatly inspire me.”
That additional inspiration is a special impetus to Pollini’s spontaneity in the present live recordings. More than usual, he comes out of himself, not shrinking from any risks. The revolutionary texture of the “Jacobin” Beethoven seems to have moved him: in a blending of mediterranean grandezza and Teutonic furor, he demonstrates how completely Beethoven in his Concertos 3 (composed c.1800–03) and 4 (1804–07) has left behind the model of Mozart, which had been so apparent in his first two efforts in the genre, in order to pursue his own, energetic path. Pollini emphasizes the new and powerful independence of the piano part and the increased potential for conflict of the thematic material, yet without ever sacrificingtransparency and flexibility. His interpretations are an exemplary fusion of drama and lyricism.
Moreover, the limpid quality of the inner structures and developments of the outer movements as well as the dialogue in the middle sections, highly varied both emotionally and coloristically, are impressive evidence of Pollini’s subtly conceived agogic and dynamic finesse, his inimitable touch, which discloses a palette of supremely differentiated tone colours, and his articulation, which can convey both metallically flashing weightiness and incomparable sensitivity. Pollini has the advantage over great interpreters of the past of what he has acquired from his tenacious preoccupation with New Music in terms of expressiveness, tonal structure, dynamic expansiveness and rhythmic diversity. In this live recording these insights bring to a host of breathtaking interpretive qualities the added dimension of a reconciliation between classicism and modernity.
(This is the booklet text by Peter Fuhrmann, author and music and cultural producer in radio and television. For many years he wrote for the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”. Translation: Richard Evidon)
A Fusion of Mind and Spirit
Nowhere has Maurizio Pollini’s peerless structural command proved as revelatory as in the German Romantic repertoire, and this is particularly true in the works of Robert Schumann. During the period immediately following Beethoven’s death, an age dominated by the musical realization of dreams and worlds both real and imaginary, no one “dreamed” with quite the intensity and tangibility of Schumann. A letter written in 1838 is particularly revealing in this respect: “I am affected by everything that goes on in the world and think it all over in my own way – politics, literature and people – and then I long to express my feelings and find an outlet for them in music. That is why my compositions are sometimes difficult to understand, because they are connected with different interests, and sometimes striking, because everything extraordinary that happens impresses me and impels me to express it in music.”
Yet there was another important side to Schumann’s creative psyche. He was acutely aware of the way his greatest predecessors – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert – had given their music a sense of oneness, of belonging, of awesome inevitability. Although not always immediately obvious from the printed page, it can be perceived as a line of implacable logic that balances the structure and gives it a sense of inexorable forward momentum. One of Schumann’s most far-reaching solutions to the problem of structure was to derive virtually all his musical material from a central motif – a technique that reached its apex in the first movement of his A minor Piano Concerto. Shortly after the principal theme’s plaintive first appearance from both orchestra and soloist, it is transformed into a march-like second subject (sounding for all the world like an entirely new idea), and then in the central development section – magically cast in a distant A flat major – into a flowing passage of dreamlike rapture.
It is this process of thematic transformation and structural interdependence that is central to Pollini’s vision of Schumann’s œuvre as a whole. His concert performances of such works as the Davidsbündlertänze op. 6 and Kreisleriana op. 16 have imparted a symphonic sweep to music that is invariably characterized as a series of vignettes. So, too, his classic recorded accounts of the op. 17 Fantasy, the F sharp minor Sona-ta op. 11 and Etudes symphoniques op. 13, transforming Schumann’s quicksilver, sleight-of-hand poetic fancies into compelling, long-range structures.
Pollini’s concentration on the underlying coherence of Schumann’s music also characterizes his 1989 recording of the Concerto, conducted by his long-time musical associate and friend Claudio Abbado. His remarkable variety of touch and articulation perfectly reflects the musical processes at work. Just as surely as Schumann’s ideas are indissolubly linked, so Pollini ensures that even the tiniest inflection possesses a kinship with all that surrounds it. In this context, Pollini’s subtle staccati, which invariably arise out of a bedrock of legato, become a metaphor for the organic nature of the work as a whole.
The relationship between Schumann and Brahms was extremely close, both personally and musically. They met for the first time in September 1853, an encounter that left the older composer breathless with enthusiasm, hailing Brahms as “the natural heir and successor to Beethoven”. Sadly, Schumann’s support was to be short-lived, for a year later he made a half-hearted attempt at suicide, and lived out the remaining two years of his life in a mental asylum. His wife Clara recollected that first historic encounter in her diary: “He [Brahms] played us sonatas, scherzos etc. of his own, all showing exuberant imagination, depth of feeling and mastery of form. Robert says there was nothing he could tell him to take away or add. […] He has a great future before him, for he will find the first true field for his genius when he begins to write for orchestra.”
As if in response to her words, it was not long before Brahms completed his first three published orchestral works: the two Serenades (1859) and the op. 15 Piano Concerto (1854–58). This had started life as a sonata for two pianos, composed as an anguished response to Schumann’s descent into insanity, before being developed into a four-movement symphony. Only the first movement of this new version survived the work’s final metamorphosis into a piano concerto, to which was added a radiant D major Adagio (Brahms claimed it was intended as a portrait of Clara, although there is evidence to suggest that it was also an “in memoriam” for Robert) and a searing rondo finale that clearly takes inspiration from Mozart’s K. 466 (like Brahms’s Concerto, in D minor). Just as Schumann’s Concerto was initially misunderstood, owing to its unprecedented integration of soloist and orchestra, so Brahms’s First was roundly criticized for its symphonic muscle and lack of overt virtuoso display. Brahms reported despondently to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, after the 1859 première: “My Concerto has had here a brilliant and decisive – failure. […] At the conclusion three pairs of hands were brought together very slowly, whereupon a perfectly distinct hissing from all sides forbade any such demonstration.”
For Pollini, Brahms’s mastery of symphonic form and structural counterpoint lies at the very heart of his piano writing. He first established his Brahmsian credentials on disc in 1976 with an imperiously commanding account of the B flat Concerto (no. 2) with Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. This was followed in 1979 by an electrifying reading of the F minor Piano Quintet with the Quartetto Italiano, and a decidedly stern and undistracted account of the D minor Concerto with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 1997 he returned to the work, this time “live” in the Vienna Musikverein with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic as partners. If in 1979 Pollini appeared intent on paring the music down to its barest essentials, nearly 20 years later he invests Brahms’s arching phrases with a series of exquisite temporal and tonal inflections that create an unforgettable fusion of both mind and spirit.
(This is the booklet text by Julian Haylock, editor of “International Piano”.)
A Class of his Own
It has been said that Beethoven is Pollini’s “inner discipline”. His playing of Beethoven has been our discipline, too, in the concert hall and on record during the last 25 years, not least his playing of the late sonatas. While Rudolf Serkin and Emil Gilels were alive, it was possible to say that there were other masters whose command of late Beethoven, technically and intellectually, was the equal of Pollini’s. Since their deaths, Pollini has been pretty well in a class of his own.
Not that this has necessarily pleased critical opinion. Taking its cue from a wider culture in which private sentiment and individual opinion is corralled by a voracious media into sensation-seeking eruptions of joy and grief, critical opinion is nowadays apt to think intellectual disinterestedness “cold”, professional rigour “ruthless”. I have long treasured a critic’s judgment on Pollini’s reading of the Piano Sonata op. 27 no. 1 which declared it to be “an interrogation of the music rather than a truly sympathetic interpretation”. It does not, surely, require a surgeon to tell us that expert “interrogation” (or “diagnosis” to use a less politically charged word) is a necessary precondition of “truly sympathetic” treatment.
I first heard Pollini playing Beethoven – an upward-rising scale in the E flat Piano Concerto – as I edged into a rehearsal at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. Haitink and the ConcertgebouwOrchestra were also present, a sufficient draw in themselves, but it was the adamantine purity and beauty of that rising scale which astonished me then and which, in my inner ear, I can hear still.
That autumn, Pollini played the last three piano sonatas in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. William Mann wrote in The Times: “[The interpretations] were straightforward, thought out with complete musicianly consistency, perfectly poised between poetry and philosophy, emotion and reason.” Tempi included extremes of fast and slow yet never seemed extravagant. At the height of the fiendishly taxing Op. 110 fugue, Mann reported, Pollini was moved to sing in a stentorian croak as he played for dear life, “sustaining as ever the scrupulous and vital rhythms which are central to his readings”.
In what is a surprisingly complete thumbnail sketch of Pollini’s art as a Beethoven interpreter, Mann noted the clarity of Pollini’s tonal range, from a lambent cantabile to an earthshaking fortissimo. He specially commended Pollini’s care over Beethoven’s rich chordal writing; in the recapitulation of the first movement of Op. 111, the music sounded beautiful for once, not “a growling morass”. “In short,” Mann concluded, “this magnificent firebrand of a pianist was in quite untamed but wholly admirable form as he exercised his mind and body on a supremely challenging, indeed Herculean, labour of musical love.”
Pollini has never regarded his Beethoven interpretations as being sui generis. He has publicly acknowledged his debt to Michelangeli (with Horowitz “the peak of piano-playing”) who taught him how to play the opening of the “Waldstein” Sonata pianissimo but not staccato and with a true misterioso. While Serkin lived, he was for Pollini “simply the greatest interpreter of Beethoven”, “nobody like him”. If Serkin was one model, an older source of inspiration was Artur Schnabel who was always so fearless in his approach to Beethoven’s tempo and pedal markings. Like Schnabel, Pollini takes on without compromise Beethoven’s formidably quick metronome mark in the first movement of this live 1997 performance of the “Waldstein” Sonata. He is also scrupulous in his observation of Beethoven’s pedal mark in the quiet statement of the theme in the sonata’s finale, blurred harmonies and all. What specially commended Schnabel to Pollini, however – over above these technical and strategic considerations – was his ability “to identify and express the psychological meaning of every note”.
The pianist Balint Vazsonyi has written that nowadays “in the place of great performances – which come exclusively from great performers and leave no one present in any doubt – we have ‘authentic’ ones”. Pollini has absorbed an immense amount of Beethoven scholarship (manuscript sources, editions, performing traditions, the instruments Beethoven himself used) but has put none of this to merely antiquarian use. If “authenticity” means anything to him, it is authenticity of thought, of feeling and a need to recreate, without distortion or special pleading, a sense of the radicalism of the music: what we might call, adapting the title of a celebrated book on Shakespeare by Jan Kott, Beethoven our Contemporary.
(This is the booklet text by Richard Osborne.)
Documents of Timeless Modernity
The 32 Piano Sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven have been a mainstay of Maurizio Pollini’s repertoire in recent years. Whereas the “early” Pollini, in the studio, first turned to the five late sonatas (from op. 101 to op. 111), and from that quasi-cycle, in recital, most frequently performed the monumental “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B flat, op. 106, he has since gradually widened that radius, attaining mastery of this “New Testament of piano music” in a sort of ongoing interplay with his public’s expectations and wishes, in full hearing of everybody, so to speak.
It was no longer surprising, therefore, when Pollini announced the public performance of all 32 sonatas over an extended, perfectly comfortable time span – though, one hastens to add, such a project will always remain horrendously demanding, regardless of the interval between recital dates: demanding of the intellect, the memory, the emotions and, at decisive moments, the fingers. Then in 1993–94 at the Berlin Philharmonie, in an exciting first attempt, Pollini offered the entire spectrum of Beethoven’s lifelong examination of the sonata as a cultural-historical phenomenon, from there gracing additional concert venues with his perspectives on Beethoven.
If we look back at this unquestionably pivotal episode in an already eventful musical life – and analyze in detail the experiences it yielded – Pollini would appear in the meantime to be trying out individual sonatas, or pairs or groups of sonatas, in ever new historical and aesthetic constellations. Given the immense wealth of expression and forms the 32 works embody, this must be a fascinating challenge – comparable to taking elements from a giant set of building blocks and, according to the most diverse standpoints, assembling them in new, structurally risky programme-edifices, or simply examining their qualities by juxtaposing them in varying permutations.
The present CD offers an opportunity to go back and listen to Pollini in the 1970s and to follow him on an interpretative journey through the wide and, in a sense, undiscovered terrain of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” and his last sonata, op. 111 in C minor. In directly comparing the two works, so different in message and structure, one is struck at first by what they have significantly in common on a higher level. Clearly yet mysteriously – without ever becoming too explicit, too revealing – they both reflect Beethoven’s sufferings, his longings and, not least, his familiarity with older music and its regular forms, which are here discernible, as so often, in the strict creative self-denial of fugue (op. 106) and in the excitable, freedom-seeking progression of variations (op. 111). In the wondrous, “pure” sphere that is composition, removed from all human frailty, these perfectly burnished works, razor-sharp in conception, evince the super-heated temperatures of a febrile creative mind and will, whose pondered, consummate yet always astonishing realizations have become a touchstone for performing pianists.
Maurizio Pollini has been numbered among the cool-headed but passionate champions of this approach to Beethoven ever since the present recordings first appeared. Earlier, he perhaps understood this music less as an adventurous play of well-ordered, spellbound emotion than he does today, and more as a fascinating document of bold, timeless modernity. It was not by chance that Pollini conceived the frictional coupling of Beethoven’s monumental “Hammerklavier” Sonata, a work indebted equally to Baroque music and the already ignited fires of Romanticism, with the sweat-inducingly complex Second Sonata by Pierre Boulez. In August 1977, at the Salzburg Festival, I had the opportunity to hear Pollini play – or, better, to hear him elucidate – these two works in a drastic yet wholly congruous juxtaposition. His gift for elucidation, for introducing the listener into a difficult but then, in the next moment, comprehensible thematic area, is similarly evident in the interpretations captured on this CD. Here he is able to shape two work complexes so as to make them acoustically approachable, to show them from the front and back and in wide-angle panoramas, revealing their details and subtleties. But the higher organization of his playing at every second guarantees that even a less knowledgeable listener will be able to glean a sense of what is unfolding, in other words, glimpse the overall architectural plan. Pollini achieves the most detailed elucidation without any didactic finger-pointing. He is an intellectual who eschews every form of academicism, one who takes the listener along on an unbureaucratic study trip, in the serious course of which the already known proves an indispensable prerequisite for experiencing the surprising.
(This is the booklet text by Peter Cossé, author, who lives and works near Salzburg as a writer on music and is a jury member of numerous international piano competitions and record prizes.
Translation: Richard Evidon)
An Architect and Aesthete
Pollini’s international career began early when, at the age of 18, he won the renowned International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. As his victory and the ensuing concerts and recordings have shown, this pianist is one of the great ones and a true “interpreter” – in other words, a mediator between the works he performs and the audience. Nothing in that has changed since then.
Maurizio Pollini was born in Milan in 1942 into a culturally active family: his father was a prominent architect, who had originally studied the violin, his mother was a musician. The appreciation of architecture instilled in him by his father can still be sensed in his playing – it is perhaps an explanation for his grasp of musical structure and his ability to present every piece he performs as a complete artwork, as an architectonically formed entity.
Precisely this ability is what distinguishes Pollini’s Schubert interpretations. As though constructing the dome of some great church, he fabricates the structures of Schubert’s sonatas, whose elements are lent such complexity by the marvellous richness of melodic inspiration. To this enterprise, he brings both great dedication and stupendous technique, as well as captivating tonal beauty and a wealth of nuances. Pollini shows himself to be an exceptionally keen architect – and an aesthete. To an extent found in hardly any other repertoire, the basic characteristics that make this pianist’s playing so special here become evident: he penetrates the work in order to make the plasticity of the music palpable to listeners, in order to make them aware of how skilfully and yet with what depth of emotion Schubert composed.
We can observe this phenomenon in the second of the three “late” sonatas dating from September 1828, the A major D 959. In the first movement Pollini finds the songfulness that so quickly brought Schubert recognition in his own musical circles. But as a responsible interpreter he does not forget that Schubert the song composer had long ago forged his own approach to the sonata, and not least with regard to form. Having been inhibited by the larger-than-life example of Beethoven and his sonatas, Schubert at last sorted out new aspects and worlds of expression. In spite of its harmonically untransparent complications, the arabesque that develops out of the first movement’s second theme has, in Pollini’s hands, the effect of a transparent revelation, liltingly lyrical, yet sounding fascinatingly new.
It is nearly impossible to take in at a single listening the richness of invention in this sonata, which, at over half an hour, is almost too long. Yet in Pollini’s interpretation one gets the impression not of long-windedness or an unravelling but rather of what Robert Schumann famously referred to as “heavenly lengths”. He lends the dance-like and song-like elements, but also the musically digressive complications, a semblance of unity, of completeness. His fine aesthetic sense and his search for the possibilities in performing this sonata seem to go hand-in-hand with Schubert’s search for new expression.
But Pollini grasps not only Schubert’s work but his emotional world as well. There is no other way to explain his capacity for conveying the loneliness, sadness and sombreness contained in the three Piano Pieces D 946, composed six months before Schubert’s death, as well as the kindred Allegretto in C minor D 915, written a year earlier.
Pollini is always conscious of his physical limits: the world star with an enormous repertoire gives only about 40 concerts a year. The number could easily be several times as much, if he wished it: again and again audiences are held in thrall after the first few bars and magnetized by his re-creative powers, so different, so much more dramatic and yet more deeply felt than one is used to with other keyboard artists. What exactly, however, is it that makes his playing so charismatic and moving?
In Schubert, Pollini’s playing does not give the sense of a performance projected outwardly. He regards Schubert not as a reformer but a former who, notwithstanding all the beauty and shapeliness inherent in the works, is ultimately creating something new. This is what distinguishes Pollini’s playing: hardly another pianist is comparably equipped to convey to the listener moments of illumination that make the work seem transparent. He succeeds even when, as in the case of Schubert sonatas, the music can become convoluted in melodic profusion and, with far less thematic contrast than in Beethoven, one can all too easily lose the thread of the argument.
To accomplish this in playing which never turns insipid, grey or dry, but instead is informed with the deepest emotional understanding – that is what makes Pollini’s interpretations so great. His playing, the visual impression of which is almost exclusively downward motion from the shoulders to the fingertips, seems absolutely controlled. It is this control – as well as the long and intensive preoccupation with his repertoire, only possible thanks to the limited number of his public appearances – which makes Pollini such a unique artist.
(This is the booklet text by Carsten Dürer, editor of the German periodical “PianoNews”. Translation: Richard Evidon)
Outlined to the Point of Blackness
“Only very seldom have I encountered a musician so entirely concentrated on the matter in hand, one so keen on giving of his best and, in the process, so utterly oblivious to his surroundings”, declared the music journalist Ingo Harden some three decades ago after witnessing the Munich recording sessions of the Chopin Etudes opp. 10 and 25. It was Maurizio Pollini’s first Chopin record on Deutsche Grammophon and, indeed, one of his initial two recordings for the label. He emerges here as an aristocrat of the keyboard, a player of exceptional refinement, who will only go before an audience or a microphone with something that has been polished to perfection, a pianist of extreme accomplishment who never lapses into extremes – pianistic artistry without heart palpitations.
Since then five further Chopin recordings have appeared, in unhurried, well-deliberated succession: the Preludes and Polonaises, the Piano Sonatas nos. 2 and 3, the four Scherzos and the four Ballades. Chopin and Pollini – a singular musical rapport. The artist himself once asserted that “a quite special affinity” existed between him and Chopin’s music. This affinity is revealed in the interpretations, every one of which is strikingly successful, a document and yet more: something definitive. There are no undissolved bits, nothing left still fermenting. In Pollini’s Chopin everything is in perfect order, is form and consummation.
Already at the age of 15 he played the Etudes at a recital in Milan that won exceptional praise in the press. Three years later, in 1960, he won the renowned Warsaw Chopin Competition, setting new standards in playing of intellectual and technical supremacy, glowing with cool, white brilliance, crystal clear and, at the same time, incredibly emotional. Much that was regarded as noble in the legendary days of the expressly Romantic Chopin tradition flashes in Pollini’s hands with dazzling brightness, with lucid but also distinctly outlined intellectual sharpness – “outlined to the point of blackness”, in a phrase of Kafka’s.
Intellect and emotionality, craftsmanlike and artistic qualities – the famous pairs of opposites used to describe practical, re-creative musicians – are fused into a unit with Pollini, who regards himself as an opponent of the division between technique and feeling. Both aspects are of essential and equal importance in Chopin: Pollini does not play one against the other but instead brings them organically together. Intellectual clarity is his artistic means, but his goal is emotional expression.
“Today more than ever before I feel it is a privilege to play Chopin”, Pollini declared recently in an interview with the German music magazine Fono Forum. The reason for this, he indicates, lies in two extraordinary qualities of the composer: “The perfection of Chopin’s conceptions of sound, the refinement of his writing for the piano, the beauty he elicits from the instrument, are perhaps greater than those achieved by any other composer […]. What is still more important, however, and especially fascinating, is the combination of this extraordinarily idiomatic writing for the instrument with the music of one of the greatest of all composers. […] Chopin once said: ‘I hate any music that doesn’t conceal a great deal of thought.’”
And, indeed, Chopin’s works seem to consist of pure musical thought. His is a compositional output astonishingly restricted by its extreme specialization in the piano, and in this respect it is quite alien to the boundary-transcending spirit of Romanticism and its striving for artistic universality. There is nothing comparable in Chopin to the pronounced, even indispensable stimulus of literature, painting and the fine arts found in Liszt and Schumann – it can be found neither behind the Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor op. 35 of 1837–39, which, notwithstanding its seemingly programmatic Funeral March, puzzled contemporaries like Mendelssohn and Schumann, nor behind the cycle of Etudes op. 25, published in 1837. Even the famous Berceuse in D flat op. 57, composed in 1844 and designated lullaby, could mislead anyone taking its title in only a programmatic sense. Chopin’s music needs no external impulse – it pulsates exclusively from the force of its own inner laws.
It is precisely the force of such inner laws which, in essence, also governs Pollini’s Chopin playing. There is no indulgence in high-flying, audience-pleasing virtuosity, no compulsion to vain self-display. He adds nothing – external or otherwise – but brings everything out of the work itself. When he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1996, the critic Joachim Kaiser stated in his tribute: “What one hears coming from Pollini’s wholly uncoddled, unperfumed Chopin is by no means merely subjectively felt music but rather something approached objectively! […] I’ve often experienced him in concert mastering Chopin’s Etudes and the ‘Funeral March’ Sonata […] with such vitality and purity that the audience becomes absolutely still, seemingly in a trance as they listen to the music. […] He presents the Funeral March as an agitated scene from a music-drama, with a tremendous emphasis of the drum roll, steely radiance at the modulations, and in the Trio section not simply heavenly peace but an ethereal reflection of the earthly music just heard.”
On the concert platform or in the recording studio, Maurizio Pollini always knows exactly what is at stake. For him success and failure are not based on purely subjective and thereby also excusable momentary reactions. They are objective responses to the musical text, to the musical content.
(This is the booklet text by Werner Pfister, author, who lives in Zurich, where he is a literary editor and writer on musical subjects.
Translation: Richard Evidon)
Force and Vision
Returning to Pollini’s recordings of these two masterpieces and two miniatures is to be reminded of classic performances from the Romantic repertoire. Classic firstly in the sense of showing that leanness, burning intensity and single-minded commitment for which Pollini is celebrated; secondly because such qualities assure these performances – aristocratic and of an unsullied force and vision – a permanent rather than temporary place in the catalogue.
Schumann’s Fantasy (1836–38) is often regarded as the finest of all his piano works. The three movements of this quasi-sonata were at one point entitled “Ruins”, “Triumphal Arch” and “Constellation”, and it is easy to see them as an intense autobiographical statement. Threatened with the loss of his beloved Clara, Schumann considered the opening movement to be the most impassioned thing he had written – a deep lament. Clara herself saw the rousing second movement as the return, or retaliation, of a warrior, while the finale forms a postlude of glowing Eusebian rapture, like so much constantly shifting sunset vapour. The headings were later replaced by four lines from Schlegel: “Through all the sounds / in Earth’s bright dreams / sounds one soft note / for him who listens secretly.” The “soft note” is surely Schumann’s undying love for Clara, but there is another homage, a quotation from the sixth of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte songs.
The Fantasy was also Schumann’s response to a request from Liszt for a work to help raise money for a statue of Beethoven, and his disguised tribute could hardly be more fitting. It is possible, too, to see Beethoven’s influence in the march-like dotted rhythms of the second movement, an obsessive device of Schumann’s which surely has its origins in the Vivace alla marcia of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 101. Liszt himself, though the music’s dedicatee and a tireless propagandist for Schumann’s music, never performed the Fantasy publicly, but he made his own, doubtless unconscious, tribute to the work in the third and most popular of his Liebesträume. There the slow arpeggios which open Schumann’s often anguished but eventually tranquil finale appear in a sensuous and wholly Lisztian transmutation.
As an encore, the Arabesque (1838) is as subtle as it is charming, an aquarelle with a coda, which has aptly been described by the Schumann expert Joan Chissell as “extracting almost as much eloquence from the key of C as the great C major Fantasy”.
Flashes of summer lightning, Romantic rhetoric and idiosyncrasy are absent from Pollini’s flawlessly gauged performance of the Fantasy. While he admires such qualities in others (Cortot and Rubinstein are among his idols), they are foreign to his nature. Here Schumann’s lyricism is acknowledged rather than belaboured, and in the first movement’s middle section, headed “Im Legenden-Ton”, there is an enviable balance of sense and sensibility. The central march movement (taken at a true moderato, as marked) is entirely lucid, the notorious coda – that locus classicus of the wrong note – impeccable. Again, Schumann would surely have been touched as well as awed by Pollini’s translucence in the finale, and also in the coda of the Arabesque which so hauntingly and characteristically summarizes all that has gone before.
Liszt’s B minor Sonata is generally considered his crowning masterpiece, and its originality has been repeatedly and variously discussed ever since he completed it in 1853. Dedicated to Schumann, in return for his C major Fantasy, it proved too novel for its first audience and Brahms reputedly nodded off during the sinister and, one would have thought, gripping opening bars. The technical demands, too, were considered self-defeating, the content intricate to the point of obscurity, and it was not until relatively recently that the work’s true stature as a major landmark in the history of Western music was fully appreciated. Today it forms a staple part of the piano repertoire and what was once found unduly episodic and improvisatory is now seen as a miracle of concentration. The stark opening theme and the chilling repeated-note reply are both treated with the utmost ingenuity and resource and appear in every conceivable disguise. Furthermore, the cyclic use of the material and Liszt’s way of modulating in passages of a far from merely decorative or extravagant virtuosity were entirely original. The visionary coda, too, with its distantly tolling bells and muffled recollection, is only one of many revelations and brings to a close a work which, for the moment, resolves Liszt’s lifelong vacillation between temporal and spiritual emotion.
La lugubre gondola (of which, unusually, Pollini offers the first rather than second version) is central to the dark-hued prophecy of Liszt’s final years, a time of increasing desolation. Music of a stark Bartókian simplicity, it dates from winter 1882, when Liszt visited Richard and Cosima Wagner in Venice, and is an echo of the funeral processions he watched moving through the canals. Moreover, Liszt explained, it depicts in music his premonitions of Wagner’s death in Venice two months later, in February 1883.
For some, Pollini’s Liszt Sonata will seem cold and puritanical, a sackcloth-and-ashes experience, showing more mind than heart. But for others (and the balance has always swung heavily in his favour) this performance is inflexibly serious, its lofty conception stressing the continuity and sense of structure Pollini so fiercely defends – the brilliant reflection of an uncompromising moral attitude. The voltage and concentration are extraordinary and, again, all elaborate voicing, textures and colours are discarded in favour of more enduring concerns. All that matters is the unveiling of a central and gleaming truth.
(This is the booklet text by Bryce Morrison who teaches at London’s Royal Academy of Music, amongst others, and who has been a jury member at numerous international piano competitions.)
Venturing into a New World
“It’s the performers’ absolute responsibility”, Pollini has said, “to put new music in their programmes.” But that word “responsibility” needs glossing. What Pollini has in mind here is no absent-minded dutifulness. With him, how could it be? With him, there can be no responsibility that is not driven by passion and furious contemplation. Also, the responsibility he has in mind is not just to the audience but to history: to an understanding of music as continuous development, unstoppable and unstopped, and to an ideal of the performer as involved in that development, an engaged participant.
That has meant creating new pieces (by Luigi Nono, Giacomo Manzoni and Salvatore Sciarrino). It has also meant re-creating great works of the recent past, including some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s piano pieces and, most weightily in Pollini’s repertory, the Second Piano Sonata of Pierre Boulez – works that can be played without shame on a programme with Beethoven, works whose musical and practical difficulties are those of composers sharing Pollini’s sense of tradition as a source of potential, not of fixed ideas. “The only interesting works”, he insists, “are those composed in an uncompromisingly modern musical language, as Beethoven’s was in his time.”
The Boulez Sonata certainly meets that criterion. Completed in 1948, it is, among other things, a massively violent but also massively fruitful collision of two musical worlds to which the composer – still in his early 20s – was drawn, the worlds of his teacher Messiaen and of Schoenberg. Theirs was the music to which he was saying “yes”, vigorously and critically.
There was other music to which Boulez was saying an angry “no”, the music that thought tradition was a matter of following established forms. As he remarked later: “My experiment was to destroy what was first-movement sonata form, to dissolve slow-movement form by means of the trope, to dissolve repetitive scherzo-form by means of variation form, and finally, in the fourth movement, to destroy fugal and canonic form.”
What Boulez calls “this explosive, disintegrating and dispersive character” is directly expressed in the music, especially in the last movement, where the markings “percussive”, “strident”, “exasperated” repeatedly appear, leading near the end to an instruction to “pulverize the sound”. The first movement is hardly less vehement. Boulez works with two kinds of opposition that replace the conflicts between themes and tonalities in a Classical or Romantic sonata form. The contrapuntal tangle that rapidly develops at the start is intercut with vigorous chordal charges, and there are also passages where notes come back every time in the same register (every C sharp for instance, being in the middle bass), so creating a feeling of obsessiveness or frustration, while in other areas those notes are tumultuously sprayed all over the keyboard. But there is no resolution of these contrasts, rather a headlong rush away from any equipoise or definition.
The middle movements provide some relief, in their different terms of slowness and slenderness, though they are still formally complex and expressively intemperate. Boulez’s reference to “trope” in the slow movement is to the medieval way of interleaving a chant (the Kyrie eleison, as it might be) with new material. Here in this sonata the basic thread loops back on itself, but the elaborations take on a life of their own and obscure that underlying process. Similarly, the repetitions inherent in a scherzo with three trios (hence forming an ABACADA pattern, which could also be considered a rondo) are disguised by variation of the scherzo section each time it is repeated.
By the time the finale is reached, there is acute pressure for something to be discovered or arrived at. Instead, as already intimated, the fire rages on, and one comes to recognize that the fire itself is the discovery – especially as Pollini plays the work, holding to a line of driving continuity, and finding a brilliant beauty in the music as well as a soaring energy. After proceeding through an introductory section of desperate suggestions around some basic ideas, this finale sinks into the deep bass for what sounds like a fugal opening, though the theme turns out to be defined as rhythm, not melody. But the lines cross one another constantly, bewildering the ear. The highly ramified structure is obliterating itself even as it unfolds.
As Pollini has observed, this hugely destructive energy that is also creative calls up comparisons with late Beethoven. Connections with the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, including the quasi-fugue in the finale, were almost certainly intended by the composer; Pollini has also noted a similarity with the “Diabelli” Variations in that “all the material is primary: there’s no secondary detail”. Sometimes he has programmed the two works together – always playing the Boulez astonishingly from memory.
But he has also coupled Boulez’s insistent early masterpiece with the quieter, perhaps stranger revolution represented by Debussy’s Etudes. This collection of 1915 was Debussy’s farewell to the piano, consciously modelled on the Etudes of Chopin. But it was a farewell that looked forward. If these are pieces that fulfil the requirements of the genre in exploiting and strengthening aspects of keyboard technique, they also, for the composer, exercised the muscles of imagination.
As such they were an important stimulus to Boulez, who has pointed out how some of them – “Pour les quartes” and “Pour les sonorités opposées” in particular – achieve a remarkable freedom of form, one idea following another by allusion or contradiction, with no requirement for a later reprise to neaten the structure. Loose ends are ends in themselves: the pieces seem to be hovering on the edge of a new world, or boldly venturing into that world in the case of the extraordinary final study in octaves, marked by rhythmic impulses Debussy drew into his music in admiration of the young Stravinsky. Also, in lacking the declared subject matter of the composer’s earlier Preludes, the Etudes move into a time when poetry and expression are again purely conditions of sound. The ground for Boulez’s Sonata is being prepared.
(This is the booklet text by Paul Griffiths, author of a book on Boulez, besides other musical studies, novels and librettos.)
The New Objectivity
Maurizio Pollini has been a committed advocate of the music of Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono for many years. Their precursors, the celebrated so-called classics of modern music, on the other hand, have (Schoenberg excepted) played a rather marginal role in his repertoire. The names Bartók and Stravinsky, for example, appear so infrequently in his discography that one is tempted to describe Pollini’s few recordings of their music as by-products of his activity – were this expression not otherwise ruled out in any context having to do with the Italian pianist. For the fact is that anything he touches becomes a central issue, one which he probes to the very core with a furious, unrelenting intensity, always demanding the utmost of himself.
In this regard, I recall a session for his recording – soon to become famous – of the Chopin Etudes, which took place at the beginning of the 1970s in Munich’s Herkules Hall. This was my first encounter with him. Everything was apparently perfectly captured on tape, and yet Pollini, oblivious to the world around him, continued to wrestle with each agogic and dynamic nuance, however slight, in order to arrive at a definitive rendering, oriented to the text alone and unmarred by any personal idiosyncrasies.
Of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from “Petrushka” and Bartók’s first two piano concertos he succeeded in creating similarly direct, unvarnished realizations, readings that have retained their authority to this day. The exemplary character of these performances is not surprising, given that the works embody the anti-romantic Neue Sachlichkeit, the “new objectivity”, whose stylistic credo corresponds perfectly with Pollini’s own performance-practice principle of unconditional fidelity to the musical text.
Béla Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was composed in 1926 in Budapest. The 45-year-old Hungarian had written practically nothing in the previous three years – in part because concert tours left him virtually no time for composition, but also probably as a reaction to current tendencies in the musical avant-garde, which increasingly pointed to a showdown between Schoenberg’s serialism and the neo-classicism initiated by Stravinsky. With his First Piano Concerto, Bartók side-stepped this polarization by following his own course: rejecting Schoenberg in favour of clear (though richly dissonant) tonality, but without adopting Stravinsky’s retrospective quotation of earlier styles.
In formal terms, his concerto still follows Classical and Romantic models. What was absolutely unprecedented about it, on the other hand, is the elemental force of its motoric idiom. In the outer movements, the dominating themes are marked by hammering note repetition, and even in the slow middle movement, the quietly throbbing beats of the timpani, cymbals and drums lend the music the character of a mysterious, tenebrous night-piece.
At the première on 1 July 1927 in Frankfurt, the composer himself played the solo part, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted. In the ensuing months Bartók saw, to his disappointment, how slow orchestral players and listeners were in accepting the work, and in autumn 1930, “as a companion piece to the first” he began composing a second concerto, “with fewer difficulties for the orchestra and more pleasing in its thematic material”. He completed it a year later and presented it publicly on 23 January 1933, once again in Frankfurt, but this time with Hans Rosbaud on the rostrum.
And indeed the emphases have been shifted in the later concerto. Bartók demands considerably more “chordal piecework” from the soloist, culminating in two virtuoso solo cadenzas. But he also largely dispenses in the orchestral parts with every complication that might entail intensive rehearsal. Most of all he strives for music of greater accessibility: the first movement is dominated by a striking motif with the character of a trumpet or horn signal; the Adagio, whose scherzo-like middle section suggests a whirring presto in the style of Tchaikovsky, is essentially a dialogue between a chorale-like string theme and the lamenting interjections of the piano; and, finally, the rondo theme of the last movement lacks nothing of the élan of earlier virtuoso concertos.
At the same time, however, the concerto has a markedly “rational” structure. The orchestra is treated in sectional blocks, with the first movement essentially given to the wind instruments, the Adagio to the strings; only in the finale does the entire orchestra go into action. The thematic construction is similarly open: the finale recapitulates the themes of the first movement in a rhythmically altered form, so that Bartók considered the movement (apart from the urgent opening theme) “actually a free variation of the first movement”.
The overall impression is nonetheless primarily determined by a thematic character which comes remarkably close to Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. It may only be coincidental that the initial notes of the “signal” theme in Bartók’s concerto are identical to the beginning of the final section of Stravinsky’s Firebird. But the frequently sparse polyphonic part-writing (with a full-blown passage of Bach imitation in the first movement development) probably was inspired by neo-classical examples by the Russian composer, and the piano’s chain of chords at the outset by the writing in the “Danse russe” from his Three Movements from “Petrushka”.
Stravinsky arranged these three movements – “Russian Dance”, “Petrushka’s Room” and “Shrovetide Fair” – in 1921 from scenes in the second of his famous Paris ballets for Diaghilev and dedicated the transcription to Artur Rubinstein. Apart from some minor retouching and a cut in the third movement, it follows the original ballet without alteration and transforms the colourful orchestra tableaux into an ingenious piano solo, whose chords, leaps and pedalling make enormous technical demands on the performer – even Rubinstein had to invest a great deal of time and effort in mastering them. In many respects the work still represents a pianistic ne plus ultra and is among the most brilliant but also most daunting virtuoso pieces of the 20th century.
(This is the booklet text by Ingo Harden, formerly editor of the record periodical “Fono Forum” and secretary of the German Record Critics’ Prize.
Translation: Richard Evidon)
Schoenberg As Normal Case
It is a conspicuous fact that the majority of 20th-century pianists rarely if ever played the music of their time. Most members of their guild could not come to grips with Arnold Schoenberg’s break with tonality – the culminating point heralded by his Three Piano Pieces op. 11. Of the two handfuls of pianists who achieved world fame in the last century, hardly a single one ventured an approach to Schoenberg’s music. Who would ever think to associate the names of Horowitz, Rubinstein or Argerich with the Second Viennese School? And even Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter considered themselves first and foremost advocates of Russian music. Alfred Brendel, of course, has made three recordings of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto op. 42, but otherwise he has deliberately left 20th-century music to the specialists. Only two major pianists committed to disc Schoenberg’s entire output for solo piano: Glenn Gould and Maurizio Pollini. The Canadian recorded it in the early 1960s for CBS, his Italian colleague followed him a decade later on Deutsche Grammophon.
For Pollini there has never been a dichotomy between “new” and “old” music: “Every musician today must engage himself with contemporary music, building on what he has learned about the past. After all, the one has developed out of the other”, he once averred; and in 1990 he confessed in a newspaper interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “When I play Schoenberg’s music, I wish that it would be appreciated and understood just like the music of the great composers of the 19th century – as Romantic music, too, certainly in that sense as well. For audiences any deviation from tonality is a problem. That applies not just to Arnold Schoenberg, but also to Anton Webern and postwar music in general. I try to make their performances something quite normal and natural.”
Maurizio Pollini came early to music of the 20th century: in 1958 he participated in the première of a Fantasia for Piano and String Orchestra by Giorgio Federico Ghedini. That same year he began studying composition with Bruno Bettinelli. Winning first prize at the 1960 Warsaw Chopin Competition set his career in motion, but it also meant that at first everyone was almost exclusively interested in Pollini as a Chopin interpreter. Gradually he expanded his concert repertoire to include works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Bartók, Scriabin and Prokofiev. Towards the end of the 1970s works by Schoenberg cropped up in his programmes for the first time. In 1969, true to his motto that the new comes from the old, on a single evening in Turin he played Bartók’s cycle Out of Doors, the Six Little Piano Pieces op. 19 of Schoenberg, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from “Petrushka” and the Second Sonata by Boulez. On another occasion Pollini brought together the Schoenberg Pieces opp. 11, 19 and 23 with the Beethoven Sonatas opp. 109 and 111. Then in 1974, in Munich’s former royal residence, he recorded Schoenberg’s complete works for piano. Two years later Webern’s Variations op. 27 followed, in a coupling with Boulez’s Second Sonata. Finally in 1988 came Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado.
Pollini is regarded as a rational, intellectual musician. He himself, however, always emphasizes how important the emotional component of music is to him. In his Schoenberg interpretations both qualities come wonderfully into play. For every pianist the ultimate goal is to realize the music’s expressive content from the extremely precise indications on the printed page. That is what Pollini does so superbly. Schoenberg’s op. 11 of 1909 is a fine example: the piano pieces are no longer bound to any key, but the revolutionary dissolution of tonality is by no means their sole content. Schoenberg conjures up – at least in the first two pieces – a musical world still rooted in late Romanticism, and it is this world which Pollini uncovers in Schoenberg’s music. The first piece is consciously modelled on Brahms, but the second goes a step further. Although it exudes the atmosphere of a romantic night-piece – especially the ostinato beginning – its radical expressive values already belong to the “music of the future”. Pollini seems to be aware of this and makes full use in his recording of the music’s extremely wide dynamic range, from pppp to ff, and he also brings a tremendous sense of colour to the piano writing.
In the aphoristic Pieces op. 19 the contrasts are concentrated in an even narrower space. The dynamics and articulation in the left and right hands at times deliberately deviate from one another. In Op. 19 no. 2, for example, staccato thirds in the left hand are radically set off from the sustained melody of the right, whereas in Op. 19 no. 3 forte chords in the right hand stand out against pp octaves in the left. Pollini, who commands an exceptional technical flexibility, elucidates these contrasts as a matter of course. It is the meticulous attention to detail in his interpretations that forges the path from structure to expression. As the renowned critic Joachim Kaiser once put it: “Pollini doesn’t bring something special to the works – he brings it out of them.” The pianist’s subtle performance of Webern’s Variations op. 27 impressively demonstrates the aptness of that observation not just to Schoenberg but to his erstwhile pupil as well.
Pollini was, of course, not the first to discover that the new music develops out of the old. “The conservative revolutionary” Arnold Schoenberg himself stressed the historical connections of his new paths. His twelve-note Piano Concerto op. 42 is formally – in respect of, say, the character and sequence of movements – firmly anchored in the tradition of the genre. Pollini and his trusted friend Claudio Abbado, with the Berlin Philharmonic in top form and playing with exceptional tonal beauty, aim for transparency and a true musical partnership. They show how closely the piano and orchestral parts are interwoven and the extent to which Schoenberg is still under the influence of Schumann’s contribution to the genre. The performance makes wonderfully apparent that Maurizio Pollini is not only a specialist in contemporary music but firmly based in the great Classic-Romantic tradition.
(This is the booklet text by Gregor Willmes, editor of the record periodical “Fono Forum” and a member of the piano jury of the German Record Critics’ Prize.
Translation: Richard Evidon)>/I>
Reinventing the Sound of the Piano
Maurizio Pollini has always endeavoured to refute the widespread prejudice against contemporary music, maintaining instead the absolute necessity of opening up and expanding the current repertoire. Composers from the second half of the 20th century whose works he has performed (and the list is obviously not exhaustive) include Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Salvatore Sciarrino, Luigi Nono and Giacomo Manzoni – the latter two owing their compositions for piano almost entirely to the association with Pollini.
He first met Nono in September 1966, and a few years later the composer took up Pollini’s suggestion of writing for the piano, an instrument for which he had never previously shown any interest. Como una ola de fuerza y luz (“Like a wave of strength and light”, 1971–72) was originally conceived for Pollini and Claudio Abbado – who gave its première at La Scala, Milan on 28 June 1972. But news of the sudden death of Nono’s friend Luciano Cruz (leader of the Chilean “Movement of the Revolutionary Left”) in September 1971, at the age of 27, had meanwhile inspired Nono to incorporate the setting of a text by Julio Huasi for solo soprano, transforming the piece into a kind of epitaph to his lost friend.
A tape recording of Pollini’s piano playing and women’s voices is heard continuously, producing a play of echoes, cross-references and expanded dialogues with the live performers. Nono also experiments with spatial effects by positioning the loudspeakers directly behind the orchestra, thereby creating a music that would “resemble opening and closing of a space upon itself, like the extending and receding of a life – a programmatic metaphor meant to be understood freely”. Nono’s typical contrasts are present: powerful outbursts and silence, violence and lyricism. The piano is restricted to its middle and low registers – and is pitched even deeper on the tape through electronic processing; the orchestral scoring is conceived predominantly in blocks. Although electronically manipulated echoes of the piano are heard early in the piece, the live instrument only enters in the second section, following a lyrical invocation and the soprano’s introductory lament. The live soprano voice is silent in the third part – a great arc of tension ascending to the highest register – and also in the fourth and last part, which reaches a sort of collective explosion and then dies away, leaving the end of the piece to the tape alone.
Luigi Nono returned to the piano for the second and last time in 1976 when he composed …sofferte onde serene… (translatable, perhaps, as “…serene waves suffered…”) for piano and tape, which was premièred on 17 April 1977 – again by Maurizio Pollini, at the Milan Conservatory. Dedicated to “Maurizio and Marilisa Pollini”, this was the first work
he composed after the “azione scenica” Al gran sole carico d’amore (1972/74) and may be regarded as a transitional work. Here Nono was moving in a new direction, and the work’s meditative and introspective character as well as its fragmentary form point to the composer’s late compositional phase.
…sofferte onde serene… was also Nono’s last piece for tape before he embraced the use of live electronics: the tape itself contains a processed version of material recorded by Pollini himself. “I was fascinated with Maurizio Pollini’s technique”, Nono explained: “not just his extraordinary way of playing but also with certain nuances of touch that can barely be perceived in the concert hall. With the aid of microphones, these unusual but barely noticeable details could be ampli-fied and projected in a completely new dimension”, thereby achieving, among other things, through electronic processing “a kind of timeless resonance”.
The insistent character of the piece, a static tension produced by its short repetitions and percussive piano writing, is set off by an extreme mobility in the handling of detail, while the actual sound is marked by a nervously incessant state of transformation, with great transparency giving way to moments of great density, tortured entanglement, contemplative wonder and the release of tension. Nono is poetically exploring and reinventing the sound of the piano, in particular its percussive character, which is capable of condensing and dissolving “knots” of musical material. A basic aspect of his use of tape is that of conceiving it as a “double” of the live instrument, in an extraordinary play of refractions, cross-references and ambiguous combinations and dialogues. There is no linearity in the structure of the piece, no straightforward sequence of events – only a labyrinthine web of fragments.
Pollini was also the dedicatee of Giacomo Manzoni’s Masse: Omaggio a Edgard Varèse, commissioned by the Komische Oper of Berlin, where it was first performed on 6 October 1977. After his initial experiments in the field of twelve-tone and serial music, Manzoni turned his intensive creative enquiries to a constant exploration of sound from disparate angles and perspectives. In this process, Masse occupies a special position: it is in fact his only piece for piano and orchestra and one of the few in which he explores in depth the capacity of the woodwind to emit more than a single tone at one time: the multitude of colouristic timbre effects than can be produced on instruments generally considered to be monophonic.
The work is an idealized homage to Varèse and explores new elements of musical expression, presented with strict, concrete objectivity. The title Masse (“Masses”) refers to the orchestral texture, in which concentrated blocks of sound-matter predominate. In his writing for multiple woodwind sounds, Manzoni also experiments with a number of other effects: homogeneous and non-homogeneous multiple sounds, moving in more or less clearly delineated registers, and including flutter-tonguing, tremolos, glissandos, quarter-tones or variations in timbre of the same note. The presence of the soloist automatically implies a dialectical relationship, a dramatic antithesis. In spite of the piano being a tempered instrument, Manzoni has managed to resolve the conflict of heterogeneity between the soloist and the orchestral mass by means of thick clusters in the piano writing, block chords and dark, dense sonorities: i.e. by means of masses that develop their own relationship with those of the orchestra. This is one of the decisive features of a piece dominated by a tense communicative urgency and severity, yet containing a powerful expressive charge.
(This is the booklet text by Paolo Petazzi who has published studies of, among others, Rossini, Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and contemporary composers.
Translation: Claudio Maria Perselli)