An expectant hall crackled with anticipation. For a recital, the stage was far from bare. A phalanx of red seats on the platform were taken by students, eyes trained on the Fabbrini Steinway at its centre. Lights dimmed and on scuttled Maurizio Pollini, modestly acknowledging the applause before getting straight down to business: Six Little Pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, previously unannounced, his tribute to Pierre Boulez to whom the recital was dedicated. Six miniatures – sparse works, but Pollini placed each one with deliberate care. Applause, a curt nod and off he scuttled again.

Pollini simply doesn’t do ‘personality’ in his stage persona. Despite a reputation that packed the Royal Festival Hall to the rafters, there is no huge ego at work here, no soaking up the adulation, no clutching at the heart, no grand speeches. The recital – rescheduled from last week due to suffering from a nasty bout of flu – proceeded in efficient, business-like manner, without grand gestures or playing to the gallery. He was there to serve the music, to serve the composer. At 74 years old, technical facility means that he may not always serve the composer as faithfully as he’d wish, but the spirit was willing.

The tumbling opening cascade of Schumann’s Allegro in B minor was smudged and there was some generous pedalling to cover up a few ‘sins of old age’ but occasional signs of majesty shone through in Pollini’s forthright playing.

“The most passionate thing I have ever composed – a profound lament for you.” Thus did Schumann describe the first movement of his Fantasie in C major to Clara Wieck, which was composed during a period of enforced separation in 1836. Pollini certainly imbued his playing with passion. Even with the odd stutter and vocal exhortation, it was poetically drawn. By setting off the second movement at an incredible lick – despite the marking ‘quite energetic’ – Pollini made problems for himself. When the tempo increases yet further, he was manoeuvred into a corner, resulting in a ragged close. Despite these few gnarled phrases, he still held the audience spellbound. The third movement, however, showed flashes of poetry rippling beneath his fingers. 

 And then came Chopin. Last time I saw Pollini, Chopin occupied the first half of the recital and – in truth – it was disappointingly choppy. Filling the second half of the programme here, and with Pollini properly ‘played in’, his Chopin touched on the sublime. In the F sharp major Barcarolle, one felt the waters of the lagoon lapping against the gondola, while in the pair of Op.55 Nocturnes, Pollini teased silvery moonbeams from the keyboard. The Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat major was a marvel, carefully weighted playing full of wistful sighs and turbulent longing. Here was the Pollini of yesteryear.

The Scherzo no. 3 in C sharp minor opened in a burst of drama before the trickling Lisztian rivulets fell from the right hand in the Trio section. Pollini’s barely raises his fingers above the keys. Instead they glide, they stroke, they caress – and the piano duly purred. The coda careered to its impetuous finish to a thunderous audience response. A pair of Chopin encores – the G minor Ballade and the D flat major Nocturne – were beautifully shaped: simplicity and profundity in equal measure.