The Pollini Project

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As the Southbank's Pollini Project draws to a close Helen Wallace gives us her views on the highlights, including refreshing Stockhausen and some brutal Schumann

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It was the ultimate antidote to Lang Lang, who had stormed through the South Bank that weekend in a cavalcade of blistering virtuosity and showmanship. The diminutive Maurizio Pollini hypnotised an equally large audience with Stockhausen’s forensic investigation of the piano itself in Klavierstücke (7&9).

No. 7 explores overtones, with keys silently depressed before others are played. Pollini’s breath-taking control over the length and shape of the very sound waves was revelatory. How often do we really hear the complete growth and decay of a chord, nurtured into an exquisite shape by a sculptor in sound such as this?

To ears scoured out and newly awoken by the Stockhausen, Schumann’s torrential Concert sans orchestre came as a rude shock. It’s one of the most inspired pieces of programming I’ve witnessed since Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Collage Montage at Aldeburgh. This is the first version of his Third Sonata Op. 14, written when Schumann was in the throes of enforced estrangement from Clara, an unbridled confessional bordering on the deranged. Pollini captured the compulsive fury of the work perhaps better than its inner pathos, and revealed its link to the Stockhausen in a startling moment before the final coda when the composer stops on a chord and obsessively repeats it.

Much of the Chopin in the second half seemed peremptory bordering on the impatient, particularly the Scherzo No. 2, which Pollini hurried through with unseemly carelessness, and he found no space to relish the beautiful Ballade No. 4. Strangely, it was the slighter pieces that brought out his genius: after an almost arthritic Prelude in C sharp minor, the Barcarolle in F sharp had a wonderful flowing warmth, and his Berceuse in D flat was a lesson in the subtlest, most sophisticated rubato, the prima ballerina of his right hand pirouetting around his supple left-hand figures with heart-stopping perfection.

This was the fourth of the five Pollini Project concerts. Some people were fascinated by his old-fashioned, deliberate approach to the JS Bach 48 preludes and fugues, which I did not attend, though others found it too pedestrian and unvaried. The fierce, driven focus of his late Schubert sonatas also left some disappointed. The three last Beethoven Sonatas (in February) however, were nothing short of revelatory: played without break, they made for an epic but utterly coherent saga, which gathered grandeur and depth as it went.

Beethoven’s instruction on his Op. 109 variations, to be performed ‘with innermost feeling’ was answered with Pollini’s intense introspection that flowered into an almost dreamlike fantasy before its volcanic climax. There was a flash of real playfulness in Op. 110 before the redemptive Arioso: I was reminded of the phenomenon described in Philip Pullman’s novels where the subtle knife can cut windows into other worlds. Again, in Op. 111, there was a sense of peeling back layers to reveal another vista, to breathe another air. As he moved through the final variations towards the rising, ecstatic trills you could not fail to be moved by this pianist, his immaculate technique married with profound, philosophical conviction.

Pollini’s final concert, which combines Chopin, Debussy and Boulez is on 28 June.

 

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine