What exactly is a sonata? As Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, nor less.” When Chopin’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor burst upon the scene in 1840, it amazed most of his contemporaries, including Schumann, who claimed it was a jest or caprice because the four disparate elements had been bundled together without much structural cohesion. A Scherzo placed second, a Marche funèbre destined to become iconic and a Presto Finale that is over and done with in little more than a minute. And yet, this sonata marked a watershed: what came after Chopin differed radically from anything Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven had previously written.

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Maurizio Pollini
© Mathias Bothor | DG

In his 80th birthday concert, Maurizio Pollini took this sonata as far away from the salon music for which this composer became famed as it is possible to get. In the introductory Grave section of the first movement there was already a magisterial weight in the emphatic chords from the left hand, later becoming quite ferociously vehement as one sensed the postilion driving his carriage through the emptiness of an inky night. In the following Scherzo I was struck by the integrated sound he drew from his Fabbrini Steinway, gleamingly dark as well as lambently crystalline in its upper reaches, the even placing of both hands providing a mighty superstructure for the explorations within.

The tread of the Marche funèbre was surprisingly light, measured yes, but by no means careworn, with a hint of defiance in the fortissimo outbursts. Quite the most ravishing playing came in the D flat major Trio section: here Pollini was the angel of consolation, conveying an enveloping warmth that offset the austerity of tone. I was reminded of TS Eliot’s lines: “My life is light, waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand.” The brief Finale came and went as in the twinkling of an eye, the soft chromatic rumbles at the start growing in chilling intensity until their explosive climax.

Respite from all the inner turmoil came in the form of the Berceuse, delivered with a gentle limpidity. Pollini’s trills might not sparkle as much as hitherto and the phrasing might not be quite as seamless as in yesteryear, but few can match the impressive sonorities he conjured up or the aristocratic tenor of his articulation.

Pollini might now appear gaunt, walking with a stoop and slight unsteadiness, humble of demeanour, but there was nothing age-related in his rendering of the A flat Polonaise. If anything, the briskness of the basic pulse belied his years. This was very much a young person’s take on heroism, the occasional smudges in no way detracting from the cumulative surge of power.

Despite the rapturous reception from a capacity audience, there was a single though generous encore, the Ballade no. 1 in G minor, in which all the pearls glistened. The sense of space, the moments of reverie true to the composer’s sotto voce marking, the miraculous tonal shadings as well as the streaks of fiery passion made for a fitting close.

And what of the first-half Schumann, you might ask. Ah, there’s the rub. Chaotic travel conditions are the bane of a reviewer’s life. The combination of a Tube strike, traffic diversions, buses that failed to materialise and persistent rain slowing everything down meant that this particular correspondent needed all of three-and-a-half hours simply to get to the venue, by which time the first half was well underway. But then, half a Pollini is better than none at all.