Pollini in recital: magisterial Chopin

Maurizio Pollini, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
May 28, 2017

Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op. 27
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Chopin: Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57
Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op. 55
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39
Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23

The music of Chopin has been inextricably linked to Maurizio Pollini virtually since the beginning of the pianist’s storied career.  Yet Pollini is a man who champions Boulez and Stockhausen just and much as Chopin or Beethoven, and accordingly, his Chopin tends to skirt flowery sentimentality in favor of precision and exactitude.  The results, however, are rarely dry and academic, instead forging a fresh interpretation wherein the composer’s Romantic and modernist propensities are held in an engaging duality, and one was eager to witness this approach in Pollini’s all-Chopin program that traversed a generous helping of the Pole’s major works.

Maurizio Pollini at Symphony Center, photo credit Nuccio DiNuzzo
Both halves of the recital opened with a pair of nocturnes; the sterling examples from Op. 27 were chosen for the first half.  A songful, melancholic melody was emphasized in the C sharp minor, contrasted by a more animated middle section.  In the D flat major nocturne, Chopin’s indebtedness to the Italians was apparent in its graceful bel canto melodies, and Pollini proved that one need not be saccharine to convey genuine emotion.

The latter two of the magnificent ballades followed; the Ballade No. 3 in A flat major was joyous in its sprightly energy.  John Ogdon famously said of the Fourth Ballade that “it is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime”.  A true testament to Chopin’s ambition, and Pollini – now at age 75 – imbued his performance with a lifetime of experience.  It opened with an intensely lyrical theme, yet the beauty of sound was often in a tenuous relationship with the work’s exacting counterpoint.  While one could carp that the articulation in the arpeggiated sections wasn’t on par with the legendary technique the pianist boasted in his younger days, it did little to detract from the ballade’s dramatic impact.  A chordal passage heralding the coda was beautifully voiced, the calm before the storm of its cataclysmic conclusion.

The Berceuse, brief as it may be, is a gem from Chopin’s late years.  Delicate and with a sense of fragility, Pollini gave a nuanced reading in its assiduously detailed ornamentation.  It was something of a respite before the tempestuous Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, opening with aggressive energy if somewhat marred by fitful prestidigitation.  There was a wistfulness to the central lyrical section, yet Pollini could have aspired to greater contrast by relaxing the tempo even further prior to the return of the main theme that inexorably leads to the work’s shattering coda.

In revisiting the soundworld of the nocturnes, the F minor work from Op. 55 introduced an elegant, pensive melody, later transformed into a ribbon of flowing triplets.  The following E flat major nocturne was marked by a melody over a rocking, widely spaced accompaniment, and a series of trills announced the resounding final chords.

Piano enthusiasts no doubt heard the Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor at the beginning of the month in Emanuel Ax’s recital at Northwestern, and it was a welcome opportunity to hear another interpretation by a masterful performer.  The first movement was given a commanding opening, and characterized by an unsettling flux between the declamatory and the flowing.  Adding the sense of proportion of Chopin’s longest work for solo piano, Pollini obliged the repeat of the exposition.  The quicksilver scherzo had élan, while the slow movement was a gorgeous nocturne, erupting into an outpouring of arpeggios.  I had no qualms about Pollini’s technique in the finale, a whirlwind of drama.

A rapturous ovation acknowledged the patrician pianist’s legacy, and he responded in kind with two substantial encores.  The Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor was as impressive for its double octaves as for the stentorian chorales, punctuated by leggiero filigree.   And finally, the incomparable Ballade No. 1 in G minor, dark and brooding.

Pollini’s Fabbrini Steinway at Symphony Center