This concert was intended to be the last in The Pollini Project, a series of five concerts taking place in the Royal Festival Hall, but owing to earlier ill health the fourth concert will take place in June. In marked contrast to the sell-out crowds that Maurizio Pollini usually attracts in larger venues, relatively large numbers of empty seats even on the platform were to be seen at this concert. The reason probably was not too hard to guess at: the presence of two Stockhausen Klavierstke on the programme not only that, but placed at the very beginning of the concert. That Schumann and Chopin followed surely helped to draw a reasonable audience, but Pollini presented the challenge simultaneously to himself and those present to take Stockhausen seriously. And, one is bound to ask, if an artist of Pollini’s stature can tackle the music with the same rigour he approaches Schumann or Chopin, should we not listen just as attentively? Indeed, such an attitude might have revealed the unintended leitmotif of the evening an exploration of how composers, each a revolutionary in their time, approach the use of a repeated note or chord.
Stockhausen’s Klavierstke VII and IX might have divested themselves of some of the brashness that whipped public and critical sensibilities into a furore when new, but for all that their relative sparseness of material presents a challenge: to make coherence apparent when little is present. No. 7 appeared to draw its life from that fundamental of human existence: breath, the act of respiring, pausing, repeating the action again with slight variations of depth, tempo and dynamic to counter any lasting impression of random intention in the ordering of the notes. Pollini’s touch was aptly brittle and percussive. As a contrast, No. 9 drew its material from a series of repeated chords played on a decrescendo, emphasising skill in balance and separation of the voicing between the two hand parts, lingering to barely register muted latent sonorities.
Schumann’s Concert sans Orchestre, the little-played pre-cursor to the third sonata, indeed proved of near orchestral scale in Pollini’s realisation. With the meat of the work delivered in the sprawling opening Allegro, an impatient tempo was set and maintained to underline the flush of inspiration that must have first flowed from Schumann’s inspiration. However the music was coherently shaped with and undeniable architectural sense and purpose, which unified the grand gesture with a closely-knit sense of internal argument that at times verged on the rhapsodic. The second movement a theme and four variations with passionato interlude mid-way through stands as one of the most neglected yet rewarding sets of variations Schumann wrote. Pollini extolled its virtues with finesse and consummate skill to place Schumann’s inventive writing centre-stage. The passionato passage, rather like the closing Presto movement, gained rather than lost through the Romantic intellectualism that Pollini brought to bear.
An association with Chopin’s music has been a constant reference point in Pollini’s career. The Prelude in C sharp minor was marked by an evenness of attack and subtle shading of the melodic line. The Barcarolle in F sharp carried a fluid narrative sense about it. Ballade no. 4 makes much of its repeated note motifs, played with witty and subtle variation on this occasion to contrast the sense of limpid vocalise with moments of Scarlatti-esque crispness. The rhythmic dexterity within the Berceuse in D flat seemed as fresh as the day it was written, whist the Scherzo no 2 was taken at full presto pelt, displaying in one and the same moment art for art’s sake from Chopin and Pollini. That Maurizio Pollini is ever a master who actively listens and cares for the sound he produces is a fact that would no doubt have pleased Chopin.
The postponed concert sees the Chopin exploration continue in the company of Debussy and Boulez’s Piano sonata no. 2, a work Pollini has long championed.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk