Maurizio Pollini at Royal Festival Hall, 18 March 2015.
A solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall is always a special event, and if you haven’t tried it yet I thoroughly recommend the experience.
The sense of occasion such an event brings is enhanced as the soloist is hemmed in on all sides by the audience, with some on the stage and in the choir stalls behind – which is where I found myself for my first ever encounter with Maurizio Pollini.
The Italian, now in his seventies, has an illustrious recording and concert-playing career behind him. Two of the composers central to his repertoire are Schumann and Chopin, who formed one half each of this recital.
We heard Schumann first, with the brief but poetic Arabesque. This is a wonderfully romantic piece with a wistful main theme. Pollini was a bit stern with it, leaning more on the two short contrasting sections rather than indulging the main tune.
We moved on to the substantial Kreisleriana, a group of eight fantasy pieces dedicated to Chopin and inspired by the character Kreisler, in the creations of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Here Schumann alternates turbulent minor-key creations with softer, poetic major key ones. In Pollini’s hands the faster numbers threatened to disappear in a whirl of notes, the rhythms occasionally blurred, but there were moments of pure insight in the slower second and fourth pieces especially. The final piece, which to me sounds like a bird flying around in an increasingly irregular circle, was perfectly poised, leaving the audience with a sense of mystery.
For the second half Pollini brought out one of his concert staples, Chopin’s 24 Preludes – written around the same time as Kreisleriana. In just under forty minutes Chopin navigates a piece in each key, cleverly structured so that he effectively follows a ‘circle of fifths’. (In technical terms this means he moves from C major, and its relative key A minor, through G major (and its relative E minor) and so on, until travelling full circle.
This performance felt like one whole piece of 24 sections, brilliantly delivered and suitably dramatic. The centrepiece of the collection, the Raindrop prelude (no.15), epitomised Pollini’s approach by being relatively quick – while the faster preludes became thunderbolts from the blue.
Ending to a hero’s reception, Pollini generously fed us three encores, beginning with the waterfall of notes that is the Etude in C minor, Op.10/12, then moving to the relative calm of the D flat major Nocturne, Op.27/2. Then, as a handsome bonus, we had the Scherzo no.3 in C# minor, with its triumphant, Brahmsian chorale theme. After some nasty words were written about Pollini in the Spectator lately, this was the perfect riposte!
You can hear the music Maurizio Pollini played on a Spotify podcast, available here