In theory at least, one could not think of a better way to end the season’s “Keyboard Virtuosos” series at Carnegie Hall than scheduling the great Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini. In recent years, his performances here, might have been a little shaky – and I’m not referring necessarily to missed keys – but Pollini is one of the few performers still truly capable of putting together a recital spanning the realm of music from Beethoven to Schoenberg and Boulez. The pianist’s decision to dedicate his entire program to the music of Chopin, an oeuvre he has been intimately linked with for decades, only increased the appeal of this Sunday afternoon recital.

Maurizio Pollini © Mathias Bothor | DG
Maurizio Pollini
© Mathias Bothor | DG

With his idiosyncratic style, retro-fitting a 20th-century sensibility to the Romantic repertoire, Pollini has always had his detractors. His lack of mannerisms and avoidance of grandiloquent gestures, his seemingly cool and detached appearance at the keyboard, conveyed to many the impression of an artist “lacking soul”.

“He is not just a virtuoso; he is also a poet,” wrote Heine about Chopin. Any successful interpreter of Chopin's music should also be both a virtuoso and a poet and, for many of his critics, Pollini is only the former. If prompted for justifications, they refer to the 2005 recordings of the Nocturnes, the most sensual and emotional of Chopin’s compositions. In Pollini’s latest recital though, the sample Nocturnes were arguably the high points of the performance, the pianist weaving wonderfully transparent textures in these reveries. The two Op.27 Nocturnes, with their enharmonic tonalities and the similarly undulating supporting bass line, complemented well each other. In the C sharp minor, Pollini emphasized the ambiguous alternation between minor and major sonorities that propel the music forward, also accentuating some of the transforming dissonances. In the D flat major, the melody seemed to dissolve in the enveloping harmonic cloud, full of ornamentation. After intermission, the Nocturnes Op.55, the first one full of divine simplicity and the second more sophisticated in its rhythmical and contrapuntal patterns, were again well served, the pianist maintaining the right balance between light and shadow. In an exquisite rendition of the Nocturnes related Berceuse, Op.57, the delicately iridescent right hand sounds didn’t fully cover a perception of uneasiness looming under the calm surface.

The four Ballades are among the most cherished Chopin piano works. Pollini played the last two in the scheduled program and the first one as the single encore he offered to an adulating public. He conveyed the sense of freedom that characterizes Op.47 in A flat major, the music moving back and forth between repetitions and moments of transition. He struggled in the longer, and more technically demanding, Ballade in F minor, using the pedal to cover inaccuracies. The grand design was still fully perceivable but one could have wished the pianist to linger more on moments of songfulness. If the versions Pollini offered were not truly outstanding, they made me think of the interpretative approach that the pianist shares with his longtime friend, Renzo Piano. Both seem to start with small, exquisitely crafted, building blocks or individual fleeting moments that they expand into a meaningful architecture. Both try to maintain a balance between emphasizing the elements of texture – the combination of warm wood and neutral cement in the architect’s case – and the overall aspiration for cartesian inspired clarity.

From the first two attention grabbing chords, immediately followed by a gallop across the keyboard, the Scherzo no. 1 in B minor moves between pyrotechnics and moments of introspection in typical Romantic fashion. Pollini rushed through the piece, especially through the middle section, as if he wanted to put its difficulties behind him.

What was supposed to be the capstone of the afternoon, the magnificent Third Sonata, was, alas, the most disappointing work on the program. Pollini approached it with aggressiveness, trying to conceal his exhaustion at the end of a demanding recital. He focused more on avoiding any derailment than on shaping phrases. The rushed Adagio still featured though the extraordinary velvety touch he can summon.

There have been many septuagenarian pianists who continued to perform successfully. Experience and suffering bring an interpretative depth that can’t be acquired otherwise. A constellation of young artists with their dazzling technique and incomparable stamina might believe that scheduling elderly “statesmen”, getting their rapturous applause more for what they represent than for what they are, is unfair to the younger generation. Sometimes I tend to agree, but not on this occasion. Therefore, I am looking forward to Maurizio Pollini’s next Carnegie Hall recital in 2018.