Last Sunday Maurizio Pollini pleased a packed Symphony Hall with a program of Chopin and Debussy that can only be described as populist, plain and simple. Choosing so many warhorses and so few dark horses was not, however, merely a safe bet. It also gave him the chance to play them better than, well, anybody.
Take for instance Pollini's performance of Chopin's first Ballade in G minor, the second item on the program after the opening Prelude No. 25. In spite of a few oddly reassuring finger slips (proof, perhaps, that Pollini is not a cybernetic organism) the interpretation seemed scarily authoritative. A percussive left hand and a sometimes sotto voce right transformed this standby into a sleeker, more macho epyllion.
The fourth Ballade, which came next, is the most difficult to grasp and understand. Pollini parsed it with fire and force, vividly evoking the rich texture of the music. At times he responded to Chopin's thoughts with such enthusiasm that his posterior was airborne six inches above the bench. And considering the number of "F"s in his fortes, it's a good thing he was playing on his own piano.
This is not to say Pollini was at all lacking in his fabled lyricism. With no prizes left to win and therefore little left to prove, the aging artist had no incentive to subsume beauty of tone to mere bravura. His performance of the Berceuse in D flat, nestled between the two Ballades and the muscular Op. 39 Scherzo, was a pearl--though he glided so rapidly through the right-hand runs that it didn't end up sounding all that much like a cradle song. Like the rest of the program, this piece benefited from the pianist's indescribably intense dynamic control.
Some critics fault Pollini's recent traversal of the Beethoven sonatas as too mannered and conventional. This is doubtless unfair, but it came to mind during Pollini's starkly Olympian, unsmiling performance of the Scherzo. I think his motives are simply misunderstood: his "straight-act" approach seeks to rescue great works from the vainglorious fireworks of unprincipled wunderkinden. He is in every way a musical aristocrat.
Debussy's Preludes, Book One, comprised the entire second half of the recital. The generic eclectics of these 12 miniatures must have appealed to the amply-repertoired Pollini, who has recorded both Mozart and Stockhausen for Deutsche Grammophon. His technique was particularly well-suited to the fierce leaps and skips of the third prelude, "The Wind of the Plain." It was equally fun to watch him grab fistfuls of notes with such glorious abandon in "The Hills of Anacapri," the ending of which seemed contrived by Debussy to recall the final arpeggio of the earlier "Gardens in the Rain" from his "Estampes." Pollini's mastery of Lisztian technique was evident in the whirling "What the West Wind Saw," and his refined yet poetic sensitivity in "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair," which too often suffers from overwrought performances, made one wish he'd consider recording some Satie.
Having conquered his audience, Pollini then catered to its insatiability with three tasty encores--another demonstration of his irreproachable showmanship. Beginning with a lovely rendition of Debussy's "Isle Joyeuse," he raised the ante with the best, most exquisitely nuanced performance of Chopin's Op. 27 No. 2 Nocturne in D-flat that I've ever heard, live or on disc. Thank goodness the crowd didn't ask for a fourth helping of dessert: it would have been impossible to surpass the scintillating brilliance of the famous "Black Key" etude with which he concluded.
The BankBoston Celebrity Series continues to bring the best performers, especially pianists, to the Boston area. Though keyboard buffs are no doubt already antsy for the November 16 Awadagin Pratt recital, it would be hard to imagine a better season opener (or box office draw) than the great Maurizio Pollini.
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