If you recognize how Maurizio Pollini walks onto the stage, you can probably gauge his mood – which this evening was particularly restless. I have always wondered why he reaches the piano so quickly and almost immediately begins to play. Invariably, he has a puzzled expression on his face, as if he were wondering what all these spectators are doing in the hall – I love this shyness.

Maurizio Pollini © Mathias Bothor and DG
Maurizio Pollini
© Mathias Bothor and DG

This peculiar manner of approaching the piano parallels the beginning of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which seems to start as if mid-phrase. Subtitled “Phantasien für das Pianoforte”, Kreisleriana’s title and subject comes from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book of the same name. Both Hoffmann’s Johannes Kreisler, his alter ego and a fictitious conservative composer in Kapellmeister, and his Kater Murr inspired Schumann in this piece. Kreisleriana’s eccentric nature could be seen as the musical translation of a Hoffmann novel, and indeed, Kreisler’s autobiography can be found in Kater Murr: in this text, one page is written by Kapellmeister Kreisler and the other is counterpointed by a satirical cat.

Returning to Pollini – the very start of Kreisleriana is meant to be “Äußerst bewegt” (extremely animated), but was probably a little too animated since Pollini was visibly nervous. It seemed that something was not quite right, as between Kreisleriana’s movements he repeatedly adjusted his seat. Despite this, Pollini’s piano playing was round and mellow. An unexpected, enthusiastic round of applause burst into the middle of the piece. Kreisleriana’s central part, especially in the very slow section in B flat major, was played with a nice cantabile, nearly like a Bach chorale. The opposing qualities of Kreisleriana could also be seen as a musical metaphor for Florestan and Eusebius, the two contrasting Schumann alter egos. Even though there were some issues in the faster sections, such as the seventh “Sehr rasch”, I think this piece was a perfect fit for Pollini’s personality: “stürmisch” inside and controlled outside.

Next was Schumann’s third Piano Sonata in F minor, played in its five movement version, which includes two scherzos in the middle. The initial Allegro was imperious: Pollini makes music with his whole self, and his whole body. He demonstrates his complete intellectual exertion as well as the composer’s effort, and it is easy to appreciate it. The Piano Sonata seems to have been written for this pianist. This piece is made up of contrasts, like Schumann’s personality, and Pollini underlines it very well. The first Scherzo “Molto comodo” appeared to me quite Chopinesque with distinctive Schumann themes. I am now persuaded that this five movement version is the best one: you cannot leave out the two scherzos without losing something. The Finale “Prestissimo possible – passionate” showed Pollini performing as usual. In any case, and notably in Salzburg where he is particularly beloved, Pollini won over his listeners.

After the break, Pollini did ask for another ten minutes of rest, but was clearly recovered. The second part of the concert devoted to his strong point – Chopin – was of five-star quality. He set up the cerulean Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 “Grave” in a slower tempo than usual, proceeding directly to the second movement. The “Marche funèbre” was the best moment of the evening: this was music that Pollini sent down from heaven with an incomparable lyricism. The “Finale, presto” was born like a breath of fresh air from the “Marche funèbre”. In such a state of grace, the Berceuse was rich in colour and sounded charming. The “Heroic” Polonaise was, as always, his ace in the hole. At this point he had the audience on its feet. Despite some inaccuracies, his rapturous reception, together with a standing ovation, should prove that Pollini speaks to the listener’s heart.