Considering the 90th birthday celebrations in London this week for Bernard Haitink, Maurizio Pollini, at 77, is a mere stripling. Impeccable in white tie and tails, he still rushes onto the platform with a degree of urgency, although his back is now hunched, his gait a touch unsteady. The Italian always draws a big crowd whenever he returns to the Royal Festival Hall – usually in early March – to give his annual recital in the International Piano Series. Platform seats were even available for those eager to get a closer view of the keyboard action.

Maurizio Pollini
© Mathias Bothor | DG

Chopin has always been central to Pollini’s repertoire, ever since his triumph in the 1960 Warsaw Chopin Competition. He clearly loves this music very much – often to the extent of singing along in a gruff baritone – but his is essentially an unromantic approach, rhythmically robust with granitic strength, always with a sense of purpose and organic flow, even if the playing is not especially fast. Inevitably, time has taken its toll and some notes went astray, particularly in the F sharp minor Polonaise, and he cannot quite muster the leonine strength for the C sharp minor Scherzo’s mightier passages. Trills were not always even. But no matter, the golden halo of sound elicited from the Fabbrini Steinway in the pair of Op.62 Nocturnes and the unforced serenity of the Op.57 Berceuse truly glowed.

Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes occupied Pollini’s attentions after the interval and here, after a purposeful Danseuses de Delphes, the playing grew more intimate, more affectionate. With the lightest of pedalling, Voiles rustled like billowed silk, while Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir was so introspective, Pollini risked losing his audience. Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the snow) would have barely left an imprint in a light dusting. As a result, the more robust preludes registered strongly: a turbulent West Wind blew icily and Puck had plenty of spark. The right-hand bells of La Cathédrale engloutie tolled vigorously against watery bass notes.

The degree of adulation that greeted his performance genuinely seemed to surprise him. More than once he held up his hands as if to say, “What? Really?” With barely a shrug, he returned to the keyboard to light the fuse on Debussy’s Feux d'artifice – a phenomenal display of skill meeting the composer’s instrument of léger, égal et lointain (light, even and distant) – before settling in for a lucid, dry-eyed account of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, a favourite Pollini party piece.

The Festival Hall is arguably too large for such intimate music-making, the restless audience too invasive of what was essentially an eavesdropping experience – Pollini, wrapped up in his own world, obviously adoring the music, playing it for his own pleasure. I’d have happily waited for the audience to disperse after the obligatory CD signing and called Pollini back into the hall, have the lights dimmed even further, and invited him to play it all over again.