How does one define “greatness” in a pianist? Is it the willingness to tackle a broad sweep of repertoire from Baroque to present-day? Profound musicality and penetrating insights, founded on pristine technique? A fearless approach to risk-taking in live concerts? Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is the sum of these parts - and much more – as his recent concerts in London have demonstrated. Here is an artist who is equally at home in the elegance of Bach, the intimacy of Chopin’s miniatures and the spiky modernism of Pierre Boulez, always bringing supreme pianism and fresh insights to his performances.

Maurizio Pollini © Cosimo Filippini
Maurizio Pollini
© Cosimo Filippini

For his second International Piano Series concert at a packed Royal Festival Hall, Pollini trod a more traditional path in an all-Beethoven programme. Traditional, but also ambitious: to perform three of the most well-known, revered and technically demanding of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas would be a challenge for any artist. For a man of seventy-two (and he looks older and frailer) this was a monumental programme, which scaled the highest Himalayan peaks of pianism and technical facility, so Pollini could be forgiven for the odd mis-placed chord or smeared passage.

In fact, the fleetness of his fingers in the opening sentences of the “Tempest” Sonata (no. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 no. 2) belied his age. A portentous arpeggio unfurled across the keyboard, bring with it immediate tension, for no clear key is established at this point, before launching into an urgent, agitated Allegro. An ambitious tempo, highly risky in less skilled hands, set the tone for the first movement, Pollini creating a sense of excess only just held in check. There were moments when the tempest threatened to overwhelm him, but he cunningly commandeered his forces, bringing great drama through musical colour and articulation rather than sheer dynamic force. As a consequence, the recitative-like sections of this movement seemed to come from nowhere: spare and unexpected, “modern” even, the notes hovering over a chillingly ominous bass chord (perhaps held longer than Beethoven might have intended, but to great effect).

The Adagio middle movement was delightfully restrained. Its opening arpeggio harks back to the first movement, but here tension was replaced by tenderness and the movement unfolded with a wit and elegance redolent of Haydn. This sensitive lyricism was carried through into the final movement, and Pollini’s more guarded tempo here allowed one to enjoy the perpetual motion of the music without any compromise in quality of sound or articulation.

After such an extraordinary opening statement, it was therefore a pity that the “Waldstein” (no. 21 in C major, Op. 53) could not quite match the first sonata in its intensity or lyricism. The throbbing quaver figure of the first movement was rather lost in some muddy articulation and the glowing chorale of the second movement never really took flight.

Pollini made light of the infamously difficult opening of the “Hammerklavier” – the rapid leap of an octave and a half in the left hand alone (though some pianists prefer to take this with both hands) – and launched into the movement with a velocity and heroic drive that Beethoven himself would have admired. The second movement Scherzo seemed to develop directly from the first movement, while the third movement exhibited grandeur combined with elegance, the decorations and fiorituras delicately turned, their rubato looking forward to Chopin’s ornamentation. In the finale, Pollini seemed to retreat into himself and the music, producing a movement of intense concentration and musical coherence. Beethoven himself stated that this closing movement would “give the pianist something to do”, and Pollini carved a path through the unremitting restlessness of this great fugue to be greeted, on its close, with immediate applause and a standing ovation.

To follow such power and rhetoric, two late Bagatelles provided the perfect encore, and the first, Op. 126, no. 3, seemed to float on a single breath, fleeting and magical.