Monday, May 22, 2006

Off topic

So, I saw Pollini live for the first time the other weekend at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, playing a program of Chopin and Liszt. It was one of those handful of moments in life when one suddenly finds oneself in possession of shocking new proof about what a human is capable of. Not impressive/mind blowing, but literally/mind blowing. He has an ability to see the structure of a piece with such clarity and foresight that one gets the giddy uncanny feeling that every note is truly in its proper place as the composer intended it.

Now, I suppose he has a rap for being 'distant', and its true that the Liszt which turns on rapture rather than structure (exhibit A being the B minor sonata) was less intoxicating. But in those pieces which fully play to his strengths of allowing you to see a work in its totality--the motherfucking oh my god out of fucking control Chopin Polonaise for instance--he is equal to none. The wonder of the thing literally brought tears to my eyes.

And PS, it should be noted that his technique is IMPECCABLE. His fingers look like the fingers you would see in a piano video for 10 year olds, yet moving an order of magnitude faster. It is virtually incomprehensible.

His *five* encores were an unmissable concert in and of themselves. He played the Transcendental Etude at least half as fast as twice as articulate I've ever heard it. The last encore, Debussy's "Cathedrale engloutie" confirmed that Pollini is as magically adept with the fast as the simple. It is difficult for one to hear his Debussy in its entirety. It requires a different sort of attention to the perfection in the value and placement of each note which one tends to take for granted. But when one hears it, it is the voice of Debussy himself.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I've heard enough Pollini to wonder where the hell that reputation for "cold/distant" comes from. It's insane; no lack of warmth or emotion in anything I know of his.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review, although I disagreed with the content; I was extremely disappointed with most of the performances, especially the Liszt Sonata. It seemed in that work in particular Pollini was dragging in the fast sections and pushing in the slow sections, as well as repeatedly playing several phrases with "typos" (perhaps he's using a 'bad' edition?). I didn't find his technique all that special in this work or in the Chopin half, it certainly paled in comparison to his recording, which I enjoy very much.

I found his Chopin oddly detached, excepting the very first work on the program, the Nocturne, which I thought was a glimpse of what was lacking in the rest of the program (warmth?). I know it's easy to throw out a word like "cold," so I won't, but I didn't feel like he was making any attempt at reaching out emotionally. I've heard performances of those Liszt works that sent chills up and down my spine, but Pollini didn't get anywhere close to that.

Regarding the encores, I agree with you wholeheartedly - the Liszt etude in particular kicked ass (I've never heard it played with such abandon, including Cziffra), and the Debussy showed that when he wants to, he's a superb colorist. I just wish he had applied that to the rest of the program. Just my two cents, but I'm glad you enjoyed his program even if I didn't!

Great site, keep up the good work!
Rick M.

Alex said...

Hey Rick/Lisa,

I really do think the 'coldness' (not your word) question with Pollini is an interesting one. I own a handful of recordings--the late Beethoven sonatas, the Chopin preludes, and Brahms 2 come to mind, and while I like them very much (esp the Brahms) they have never shaken the lunch money out of my pockets the way the live experience did. While I have never felt "oh he's being distant" I haven't noted rapture per se.

I think that's because cold/warmth is a secondary issue for Pollini. He approaches the great piano literature as one approaches a great novel, where magic is to be found in the wholeness of the thing, in the balancing of constituent parts, in the sudden comprehension of the narrative's full scope. The emotional impact that he draws from these works is bound first and foremost to their structure. In a way, this comes off as distant indeed, compared to interpreters primarily concerned with evoking the emotional world of a piece. But I believe it is a different kind of resonance. Pollini's Chopin may not pour out his heart to you, but he speaks with an honesty and truth one has rarely heard. And the exhilaration of hearing such things spoken to you is an emotional satisfaction all its own.