Seeing Maurizio Pollini walk calmly and affably onto the stage at the Royal Festival Hall to play Schumann and Chopin makes you feel that everything’s right with the world. But then there’s that anxious wait to see which Pollini you’ll get. The conflict between head and heart seems to have followed Pollini throughout his career, detractors suggesting that precision and technique can sometimes outweigh emotion. But my experience has been that whenever I hear a piano piece, I usually find myself wanting to hear how Pollini does it. So there must be more to it than mere mechanical perfection. Schumann reconciled the two qualities: “Only when the form grows clear to you, will the spirit become so too.” And when Pollini speaks of the music he plays, he clearly admires the way that pieces are constructed, but also goes on to express the emotions that emerge. Maybe he is following Schumann’s logic. Chopin builds on it, focusing on the performance and saying that you should “Put all your soul into it, play the way you feel.”

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

Pollini certainly did that in this programme of early Schumann and late Chopin, capturing both their philosophies and providing interpretations full of passion, intimacy and exuberance, but with a certain degree of introspection. These performances were more about how Pollini personally relates to the music than showmanship for the punter, and the impact was no less for it.

The first half had Pollini weaving through Schumann’s Arabeske in C major, Op.18 with a gentle playfulness and revealing rolling and rippling textures, delicately flavoured. The Allegro in B minor, Op.8, however, lost its flow slightly in the middle section but still had plenty of drama and a wonderfully fluid momentum in the final section. Schumann’s Concert sans Orchestre, Op.14 (the first version of the Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor) was more convincing. Originally in five movements, the piece was first published in three movements, with both scherzos removed and with a central slow movement, Quasi variazioni, being a set of variations on a theme by Clara Wieck, later to become his wife. This larger scale work was beautifully shaped, with understated changes of pace and mood and a subtlety of touch that comes with experience, although contrasts in dynamics were not as pronounced as they might have been. Nevertheless, Pollini’s hammer blows and delicacy gave much to enjoy, and the intensity and melancholy of the slow movement was a masterclass in how to present variations, Pollini clearly feeling each contrasting episode of Clara’s theme, while strong melodies coursing over intricate figurations snowballed through the forward propulsion of a passionate and turbulent Prestissimo possibile finale.

For all of Pollini’s affinity with Schumann, there is no greater homecoming than in Chopin. The Op.55 Nocturnes satisfied Pollini’s desire to contrast the contemplative nature of the F minor Nocturne with the bright openness of the E flat major Nocturne, showing just how a natural rubato should feel, while exuding brooding introspection in the former and heart-warming expansiveness in the latter. Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor had Pollini filling the hall with grandeur and the full range of Romantic expressiveness. The key was Pollini’s skill in giving coherence to the extensive first movement, each phrase immaculately turned while keeping a sense of the whole. The Scherzo was pure spritz, while the Largo induced a hypnotic gentle pulsing, full of restraint and longing. Pollini’s powerful drive and drama in the Finale was immersed in cascading waterfalls and sprinkling fountains, with the exuberant coda given unabashed freedom.

This was a mellow Pollini, still playing passionately and thoughtfully, and, notwithstanding a few missed notes and a slight lack of sharpness in the first half, giving an object lesson in how to  shape these complex pieces into a meaningful and absorbing performance.

****1