Much music has flowed under Maurizio Pollini’s performance bridge since last heard in Lucerne almost exactly 26 years ago (August 27, 1984—cross-reference below). What was superb artistry then has only further improved into complete mastery of the music being performed, despite the odd blemish of a right note in the wrong location. So many pianists today aspire for ever-more dazzling technique to wow the crowd, yet when that single level of virtuosity starts to wane (as it must—like athletes, years of physical wear and tear take their toll; happily, musicians with more than flash in their quiver can go on playing for decades, providing events such as this to nurture the soul of audiences and—especially here—expand their horizons).
Pollini’s program was a survey of French piano music at three important junctures: 1839 being the completion year for Chopin’s 24 Préludes; 1915 with personal, health and political (WW I) issues flying all about him, Debussy finished his second set of Études; 1947 was the year Pierre Boulez brought his Piano Sonata No. 2 into the post-war world and significantly added to the compositional shift away from tone rows towards serialism.
Listening to these works played in that same order, one has the sense of confident mastery of form and mood with Chopin, a decided interest in expanding practitioners’ skills while still expanding the possibilities of substance and style (Debussy) and a painstaking search for a way out of the musical dilemma largely caused by artists’ collective horror at seeing so much mindless death and destruction for most of the twentieth century (Boulez).
In the Préludes, Pollini seemed to become a part of the piano, shaping the famous Homage à J.S. Bach in a clear, powerful manner that moulded the 24 parts into one massive thought. As was the case for the entire recital, there was never an ugly or brittle sound to be heard, a feat that is becoming increasingly rare. Unforgettable and a model of structure, balance and emotion was No. 15 (D-flat Major); art doesn’t get much better than that.
The Études were miles apart from Poland’s favourite son, yet hardly a note could have been written in the same way if Debussy wasn’t such a devoted Chopin performer, scholar and editor. Pollini easily widened his palette and proved in every case (most especially the welcome zest of “Pour les notes répétées”) that all of these lessons had truly been learned par coeur.
The most challenging music (Boulez) for performer and audience alike simultaneously looked back at the evolution of French piano repertoire and encapsulated everything into such small cells that constant torrent of “bits of beauty” gave the ear a complete workout in just 30 minutes. Like a genius who is in the wrong class, the lines can’t sit still: register, volume, texture, weight, juxtaposition and silence never found rest, the search continues—full circle from the relative contentment of Chopin, but setting the stage for others to follow, looking for yet another path towards artistic expression that is able to speak about all that surrounds it to all who care to listen.
Joining Pollini on stage—much to the delight of the capacity crowd—Boulez seemed as pleased with what he’d just heard as the pianist was respectful of the sonata’s composer. Watching these two men of music share a moment of thanks together only begs the question: Who from the current generation can hope to follow in their shoes? JWR
Chopin: 24 Preludes
Columbia Masterworks M33507
It’s a great pleasure to revisit Perahia’s magnificent rendering of these compactly constructed treasures. Few pianists have ever been able to so deftly voice the entire set: the inner lines are never neglected and the harmonic weight demonstrates an understanding of Chopin’s subtle shifts that far too often are MIA.
Using delectable understatement (Nos. 2, 4, 7, 9), forward drive (5, 8, 10) and barline-free rhythm (notably No. 11 where duple/triple coexist like the best of friends) the first 14 preludes vanish in a flash. From 15 through to the D Minor finish (No. 24 magically ends this incredible journey with three hammer strokes of a single, deep pitch) both Chopin and Perahia dig even deeper into their respective crafts, expanding the compositional framework and the underlying emotional currents.
The added bonuses of Op. 45 (C-sharp Minor whose thematic link to No. 3 perhaps wouldn’t have been as obvious if heard in isolation; the delayed cadence resolutions add still more freshness to this work) and Op. Posth. (A-flat Major; seemingly a trifle which only speaks again to the pianist’s gifts) round out the disc and can serve as a benchmark for others to test their mettle. JWR