Two composers poised on the cusp of change, separated by a century, were the focus of Maurizio Pollini’s second London concert this season. Not many people can pair Schoenberg with Beethoven to create a convincing whole, but Pollini can, and this performance showed why, at 75, he is still a master of the piano, a peerless musician, and a very popular visitor to London, judging by the standing ovation, rapturous applause and many curtain calls he received at the end of the evening.

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

It’s 20 years since Pollini performed a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas as part of the International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre, and for this concert he chose two of the composer’s most popular sonatas, the Pathétique and the Appassionata. Between these two turbulent edifices came the two-movement Op.78, A Thérèse, which combined lyricism with intimacy and to which Pollini brought grace and charm, particularly in the first movement.

Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op.11 were composed 100 years after Beethoven’s Op.78, and these works opened the concert. It is a great skill by any performer to open with quiet miniatures such as these, but they serve a purpose of really focusing the audience’s attention. Despite a noisy infant in the corridor and much bronchial throat-clearing in the Stalls, Pollini seemed impervious to these interruptions and played with concentrated focus from the outset. His bespoke Fabbrini Steinway has a bright, dry tone which suited this music, and he highlighted the music’s intensity, its fleeting writing, hints of tonality and ambiguous emotional landscapes. The Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19, are even smaller in scale, aphoristic and emotionally charged (in particular the final work, written shortly after the death of Gustav Mahler), to which Pollini brought clarity, intimacy, wit and poignancy. This is not the easiest of music, for the listener, with which to open a concert programme, but Pollini’s ability to draw the audience into Schoenberg’s unsettling soundworld was convincing and compelling.

If the opening works demonstrated concentrated focus, the Pathétique felt rather unsteady. There’s no doubting Pollini’s technical assuredness: at 75 he is still nimble and agile across the entire range of the keyboard, but the first movement seemed rushed, though it did not lack dramatic bite, and there were a number of smeared passages. The songful slow movement felt rather four-square and emphatic in its message: I craved more cantabile in that long-spun melody. The finale was a breathless gallop, not always secure, but audacious and sincere.

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

The haunting opening measures of the Appassionata recalled the Schoenberg in their concentrated intensity before the music broke free into a movement of fearless drama, tension, power and savage momentum. No uncertainty here, Pollini tore through the movement with a taut single-mindedness. The passagework glittered, trills had a fleeting elegance, and a sense of the overall narrative was clear throughout. The stately second movement, a theme and four variations built on a simple chordal motif, grew in statue as the note values got progressively smaller, a favourite device of Beethoven to create a sense of increased momentum. Pollini handled it with nobility and grace. The segue into the finale was masterful – control before the storm erupted in tumultuous waves of sound. A febrile, urgent moto perpetuo of edge-of-the seat excitement and drama.

This is why people still flock to hear Pollini perform: assured technique underpinning a clear sense of the music’s narrative, its drama and contrasts, no mannerisms, and a modesty which allows the music to speak. To quote a fellow Twitterer who attended the concert, “note-perfect upstarts take note” – which I take to mean perfection is not a pre-requisite when one hears such clarity of vision and musical intent.

Pollini rewarded the loud applause and standing ovation with two Bagatelles from Beethoven’s Op.126, late works which show the composer at his most refined and philosophical.