The Royal Festival Hall was the setting for the second recital in a series called ‘The Pollini Project’ subtitled “A five-recital pilgrimage through the piano repertoire from Bach to the 20th century”. Maurizio Pollini, who will be 70 next year, is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of his generation. Born in Milan, Pollini won first prize in the 1960 Warsaw Chopin Competition. He then established an international career performing in the world’s major concert halls and working with distinguished conductors including Karajan, Chailly, Muti and Mehta.
Pollini has always been an advocate of 20th century music, frequently featuring composers like Boulez and Stockhausen, so it is no surprise that he is juxtaposing classical and more contemporary music during this project. The point, according to the Maestro, is “to give an overall flavour of the keyboard repertoire”. The first recital in the series, which took place in January, was a complete performance of the first book of The Well-Tempered Klavier by J.S Bach. This concert comprised entirely of works by Beethoven.
Pollini performed Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas without an interval. These works are often regarded as the pinnacles of the piano sonata repertoire. Charles Rosen, the pianist and musicologist remarks, “understanding them…. requires an active participation from the listener never demanded before from a piano sonata….the composer clearly intended these works as exemplars of great spiritual experience” (Beethoven’s Piano Sonata: A Short Companion; Yale University Press).
The concert began with Sonata Op 109. The opening theme was simply phrased and the movement was given a meditative yet improvisatory quality. Pollini hurtled through the Prestissimo with great aplomb boldly shaping the thematic material. The Theme, in the third movement, was indeed ‘molto cantabile ed espressivo’, and the Variations perpetually increased in intensity but a greater sense of space would have reinforced the contemplative character. The opening of Sonata Op 110 had a serene, reflective demeanour and the Arioso was beautiful but the fugue in the finale was rather over pedalled and a little hurried in places.
Sonata Op 111 was different altogether. The opening movement was dramatic, lucid and full of rhythmic drive, contrasting with the sublime lyricism portrayed in the slower variations of the Arietta. As the figurations became increasingly elaborate so Pollini’s rich dynamic range and virtuosic powers came into their own. This was a majestic and technically flawless display. Pollini gave the Arietta an ecclesiastical aura providing spiritual nourishment and in return the audience provided a standing ovation. The series continues on February 26th with an all Schubert programme.