CHOPIN Piano Sonata No 3 (Maurizio Pollini)
During the past two seasons, Pollini has toured with programmes that devoted ample space to Chopin. His victory at the age of 18 in the 1960 Warsaw Competition has made Pollini’s Chopin a benchmark, despite the subsequent broadening of his repertoire. His latest DG release consists entirely of works by the Polish master, composed between 1842 and 1844.
Pollini turned 77 this January and, while it is tempting to draw comparisons with pianists such as Backhaus, Rubinstein, Horowitz and Richter who continued playing well into maturity, it is a temptation I shall try to resist. Pollini’s own variegated pianistic legacy provides more than ample bases for comparison.
Artistically speaking, Pollini has always tended toward the Apollonian, and his intellectual rigour is fully evident in this recording, not least in its choice of a highly specific, circumscribed period of Chopin’s oeuvre. Granitic surfaces, bluntly emphasised harmonies and a preoccupation with polyphony are the chief characteristics of these interpretations. Meanwhile, rhythmic nuance, sensuous textures, singing line and the finer contrasts of touch and dynamic play less than subsidiary roles. In this sense, Pollini’s new recording might be considered a culmination of some aspects of his historically anti-sentimentalist Chopin, with its shapely formal structures and, for all its former exuberance, a certain aristocratic reserve.
At the same time, this new recording seems to signal something of a sea change, a departure which, if rooted in the past, feels radical nevertheless. In the F minor Nocturne of Op 55, delicate melancholy is replaced by a demeanour of mistrust which mutates into rather gruff, inscrutable determination. Its companion piece, the beautiful E flat major Nocturne, scrupulously maintains the upper voices, though they often sound disputatious rather than intertwining in sympathetic accord. A pellucid Berceuse contains just about all the requisite ingredients except tenderness. The first Mazurka of Op 56 becomes a little dull for want of contrasts and the second lacks the rambunctious bounce of a true vivace, while the unfolding tragedy of the third in C minor strikes as curiously desultory, with little that speaks of genuine pathos, and an affectively non-committal ending.
It is the great B minor Sonata, however, that provides most food for thought. The sense of force of will brought to bear on unruly material is disquietingly pervasive, with opening measures that evoke a gauntlet cast down in anger. There are instances in both the Scherzo and finale where rhythmical instability in the left hand threatens to short-circuit Pollini’s vaunted technical reserves. Most disheartening perhaps are those moments when impatience seems to surface in the musical discourse.
This is not Chopin for everyone. Its sternly ascetic qualities abjure any conventional idea of beauty holding sway in contemporary Chopin performance. Those seeking poetry, sensuous contour or variety of affect should look elsewhere. Yet Pollini remains ever the master pianist, a cultivated musician of varied tastes, wide experience and provocative intellect. These qualities alone command our attention.