Friday, October 31, 2008

Pollini at Strathmore

Anne Midgette saves me a bit of trouble with her spot-on review of Maurizio Pollini's recital at Strathmore two nights ago:
Pollini thinks in phrases, not in notes...If music is made up of sentences, these were translating the content into a whole new language. And yet it never felt as if the pianist were being whimsical, imposing a point of view simply for the sake of being different.
Contrast this to Allan Kozinn's NYT review of the same show at Carnegie Hall the other week:
If you like this aspect of Mr. Pollini’s style — his forcefulness and muscularity, and his ability to create the sense that the piano is inadequate to the music’s demands and his own — his tendency to apply the same expressive effects to every work on the program was not a deal breaker...the sameness of his interpretive approach from work to work struck me as a flaw that even the great — and very real — Pollini aura could not overcome.
Kozinn has every right to find Pollini not his cup of tea, of course, but I fear he is trading in the fairly tired Pollini "debate". Pollini is a challenging artist, but not because he offers extreme perfection at the expense of warmth or sentimentality. Rather, it is because he challenges his audience to think "bigger" about the works he plays, for lack of a better word.

Its a hard thing to describe, as AM duly acknowledges, but when he is really successful, the feeling is akin to the revelations one is used to feeling more often in literature or architecture: when you really understand a work as the sum of its parts, and the genius in their relations. Achieving this--making that architecture audible to an audience--requires an absurd level of consistency and control. The second things fall out of proportion, the audience goes back to understanding a piece as simply melody plus harmony, color plus tempo, etc. Anyone not at the pinnacle of virtuoso technique wouldn't be able to even consider such ambitions for the repertoire he plays. Again, AM hits it when she says that his performance was hardly note perfect, but conveyed the "concept" of perfection.

Now, sometimes his interpretations require a lot of work on the part of the audience, because to express the design that he wants to, he needs to contradict the CD playing in our head. Sometimes its successful, sometimes its not. It's a tricky business. But we shouldn't assume for a moment that what we're hearing is anything as mundane as an "effect" that didn't come off right or didn't get enough attention. Pollini is a man with a project, and his interest lies in a very different space than isolated effects.

I could rundown the different pieces in detail, but I really ought to go back to work, so I'll just say: the Appasionata was probably the pinnacle in all around mind blowingness; the Tempest bores me these days but it was good; the C Major Fantasy reading was probably the most 'challenging' by the meaning above, but perhaps the one that will stay with me longest; Pollini's Chopin, which closed the concert and accounted for all the encores is a really unique and special thing, and I'm not going to ruin it by going on about it anymore.

Also notable from the department of ironic bad concert etiquette: some classical music dork's cell phone went off during the Beethoven, and I'm pretty sure the ring tone was from some other Beethoven piano piece. Is that more or less embarrasing than "Who Let the Dogs Out"? Not sure...

Update: Great rundown from Charles Downey at Ionarts here.


Anonymous said...

Re. Appasionata and Tempest. I would have loved to heard Pollini perform these.

Andras Schiff performed both this week at Carnegie Hall. These were concerts 5 and 6 of his 8 concert/2 year series of all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas in order. He is quite a literalist - very "by the book". (Some of the pedalings in the Waldstein and Appasionata were revelatory.)

I would recommend Schiff's lecture series of all 32 sonatas. I've been listening to them to/from work and at the gym. He sits at the piano, and he talks through all 32.,,1943867,00.html


Alex said...

Thanks for the reminder, I definitely need to listen to those one of these days...

I got to see Schiff's appearance at Strathmore last month, which was Tempest, Hunt, No. 16(?), and Waldstein after the the encore, in which he did the entire Italian Concerto! The Waldstein was the highlight for me as well...

Anonymous said...

Schiff's encores have been amazing. Last year at Carnegie, for 3 of the recitals, he played a complete Bach suite (or partita) straight through.

Our encore for the 16,17(Tempest),18(Hunt),21(Waldstein) evening at Carnegie was the last movement of Schumann's Fantasie (with the ending of the 1st movement tacked on - I mean to investigate and see if this was Schumann's original ending). For the next recital (sonatas 22-26), Schiff did a Schubert Moment Musicaux and Schumann's Arabesque.

To tie this all into opera. Listen to the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Sonata Op 31 No 1 (number 16 in G Major). It is a parody/homage to Italian opera. Written around 1800, it presages Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. A gorgeous vocal line, some pizzacato accompaniment, many vocal flourishes, and a true merging of drama and form. It is brilliant.


Vercingetorix said...

I saw the reference to the NYT review and was a bit taken aback. I read the NYT review and was disgusted.

Pollini is a brilliant man, a true intellectual. Nothing would be more enjoyable to have the critic you refer to, Kozinn, sit down and discuss the details of the performance with Pollini. From their discussion of objective criteria like tempi and dynamics to subjective ones like interpretation, the result would be laughable. Pollini would slice and dice him on every possible aspect of the performance. Pollini’s immaculate understanding of the music would dwarf such insubstantial criticism as Kozinn offers, aura or not.

The October 26 Times review is a piece of critical garbage. Let’s see, Pollini’s playing was “powerful and precise, driven by a probing intellect and executed with steely, virtually infallible fingers”—but in essence it was just missing that certain “je ne sais qua.” And it’s really quite comical that Kozinn seems to criticize Pollini for an impetuous and hard driven “Revolutionary Etude”—was he drunk when he wrote this? The “Revolutionary Etude” is the exemplar of hard-driven pianistic impetuosity. And god forbid that we should have an impetuous and hard-driven “Tempest” or “Appassionata.” What else was he expecting to see? Presumably the program was available for review before the concert and Kozinn could have decided to skip this scary and treacherous aggregation of hard-driven impetuosity if it was just too much for him.

But there’s another way in which the NYT review falls flat: lack of humanity. Pollini has been an incredible talent for a long time. He turns 67 in January. While we all age differently, let's face it, the rules of nature assure that this is not the Maurizio Pollini of the Deutsche Gramophon glory years of the 1970's and 1980's—now those were some recordings! I recall his Late Beethoven Sonatas, the Chopin Etudes and Preludes, and the Schubert Wanderer Fantasia discs were really quite astounding. I heard him in the concert in the early 80’s several times, heard no mistakes, and was awed. The battalions of London critics who brought their scores to the concerts agreed with this assessment. But according to Kozinn, Pollini still has “virtually infallible fingers”—so I guess age maybe has nothing to do with it.

While I last heard Pollini play Beethoven in concert about ten years ago, I know that he is one of the most exceptional pianists that has walked the earth and his playing must still have much to offer—particularly if, as the reviewer suggests, his technique has not deteriorated. A critic who offers vague and insubstantial criticism of this kind in the face of an explosive and intelligent pianistic genius of Pollini’s stature lacks heart and soul.

AMY said...

"A critic who offers vague and insubstantial criticism of this kind in the face of an explosive and intelligent pianistic genius of Pollini’s stature lacks heart and soul."
...I would add, totally irresponsible and lacking in intellectual honesty.