In an exhilarating finale, Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini’s fascinating series at the Royal Festival Hall, ‘The Pollini Project’, closed with a concert focusing on the music of Chopin, Debussy and Boulez. This was meant to be the penultimate concert in the series, but was rescheduled due to ill health. The Pollini Project has been a personal survey of keyboard music from Bach to Boulez, and has included the final three sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert.

© Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon
© Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon

Chopin’s ‘24 Préludes’ Opus 28 were completed during his ill-starred winter holiday in Majorca in 1838, and drew their inspiration directly from Bach’s ’Well-Tempered Clavier’, which Chopin admired and, it is said, studied every day (it was the only score he took to Majorca). Each is a miniature miracle, reflecting Chopin’s wider output and the broad range of motifs, styles, textures, moods and colours found in his music. Pollini, in an interview for the BBC ahead of the concert series, describes Chopin as “mysterious” and “avant-garde…..in his own time”, and, in his masterful hands, he neatly caught the ever-changing musical landscape of these pieces, from martial and hymn-like, ethereal (No. 7) and elegant to sparkling and lyrical, menacing and weird (No. 2). The No. 15 (‘Raindrop’), too often the subject of clichéd sentiment, sounded completely new, at once beautiful and menacing with its portentous repeated notes, which faded to nothing at its close. There was glittering articulation one moment, sonorous chorale-liked chords the next, the pause between each prelude perfectly judged, with Pollini segueing effortlessly from one to another, or allowing a magical silence, as the mood dictated. By the close of the virtuosic No. 24, with its dark, tolling final notes deep in the bass, Pollini had set the tone for the evening: a recital of intense intimacy and concentration.

Unlike Chopin’s often harmonically unresolved preludes, Debussy’s two books of Préludes (like Chopin’s, a total of 24 pieces) are impressionistic tone poems, their titles suggesting their literary or artistic stimuli. Each is complete within its itself, but by including the title at the end of the piece, Debussy implied a “story” within the music. The title ‘Voiles’ suggests both sails and veils, though Pollini opted for a more nautical interpretation, a little boat, moored yet set rocking on a passing breeze, ripples of water lapping against its painted hull, rather than the more eroticized suggestion of veils. ‘Le Vent dans le Plaine’ (‘Wind in the Plain’) is more self-explanatory: here we heard gusts and eddies, or the full force of the afternoon ‘mistral’, while in ‘Des pas sur le neige’ Pollini evoked the muffled sounds after a heavy snowfall with the unchanging ‘ostinato’, a carefully measured repeated ‘stepping’ figure in the left hand. In ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’ (‘The Submerged Cathedral’) there were ravishing pedal effects, highlighting ghostly parallel harmonies and deeply sonorous tolling bells.

Thus, the scene was set for the sorcery of Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2, a dense, complex piece which, on first encountering, seems formidable and incomprehensible. Maurizio Pollini has long championed the music of both Boulez and Stockhausen, the sort of late 20th-century repertoire many artists of a similar stature won’t touch. His affinity with this music was evident from the start, and he conjured coherence out of seemingly disjointed notes and phrases to create an extraordinary soundscape which included the splash and drip of heavy rain, or the steady tick of droplets falling from the roof of a cave; at other times scurrying and spidery, metallic, stamping, tinkling, growling, manic. Pollini was sprightly and animated in this music, and, apart from pausing between movements to mop his forehead, seemed unfazed by its extreme complexities, throwing wild clusters and cascades of notes around like magical sparkles of light. It was beautiful and spellbinding, utterly beguiling, a glittering finale to an extraordinary concert series.