Thursday, February 23, 2017

Maurizio Pollini, RFH review

If you ever, as I once did, discover a love for Chopin's piano pieces, you will inevitably find yourself listening to Maurizio Pollini. Along with Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich, he'll turn up in your YouTube searches soon enough, although, it turns out, he ranges farther and wider in the classical realm than good old Fryderyk Franciszek.

Anyway, I was surprised to hear that he is still alive, and booked a ticket for a recital at the RFH, exactly my cup of tea, just a piano and an audience, and someone to play it, in a nice room. No microphones and all that modern jazz. Not modern jazz, modern ... stuff. But not modern jazz either. Chopin, my favourite.

Since I haven't, in the few weeks since the Daniil Trifonov concert, added anything to my threadbare understanding of classical music, my critical insights remain no better than mundane. This guy has the knowledge, if you're interested. But still, you know, I'm having a crack.

My friend, my resident classical music know-it-all, had warned me that Pollini was now too old and it was likely to be a bust, because who can really perform at 82 or whatever he is, and he'd seen him before and it had been terrible. But it turns out that Pollini is only 75 and, so far as my limited critical ability could tell, can still tickle those ivories in a roughly congruous manner. As I strolled up to the South Bank, feeling all cosmopolitan because for once I'm actually going out in London somewhere not the pub at the end of my road or some overpriced twat citadel in Hackney; as I walked up I was thinking, well, I know Chopin quite well, so it'll probably just be him playing Chopin and how transcendent can that be? I mean it'll be what it is. No surprises, I suppose, is what I was thinking.

And I was right, but also I was wrong, because there were surprises, and they weren't just related to having nowhere to sit in the bar beforehand, or how they made you buy a programme to find out what he was going to play, which you might have thought would be included in the price of the ticket, if you knew nothing about anything. No, the surprises were that despite listening to what I thought was quite a lot of Chopin, I didn't know Pollini's choices very well. So I got to enjoy fresh Chopin, while still enjoying Chopin, because Chopin is Chopin and whether nocturne, ballade or scherzo, operates in the same lilting, gorgeous register, streams of ethereal melodies and an endlessly interesting colour chords. Of all his choices, I most loved the Berceuse in D flat, a short, playful nursery-like dream that manages to combine meditative stillness with gobsmacking pianistic athleticism.

The thing with Chopin is that the tunes are so clear and well-articulated that it holds your (my) attention much more effectively than, say, the Debussy that Pollini played after the interval. It's possible to hear what's going on with Chopin, even as he illustrates and elaborates in all directions. With the Debussy – or some of the things Trifonov played – while it's all very nice, beautiful, spectacular, dripping with imaginations, whatever, I find I start to drift; the storyline is submerged, and my mind begins to wander. But with Chopin, I'm held, able to follow exactly his beautiful, lyrical, aching forays into romantic delirium. Towards the end of the Debussy, by contrast, I began aching for him to finish.

Pollini himself seemed in good health. He did look like an old man, with the beginnings of a stoop as he padded to the piano, and perhaps Trifonov's fingers were more emphatic, but there was nothing I could hear that suggested he wasn't up to it and he played more or less consistently well through two hours. He did take a lot of bows, for an old guy. Up after every piece finished and bowing round the great hall, which had added rows behind him on the stage. After the Debussy he padded off, then padded back on again to take more bows. He got a bit of a standing ovation at this point, but it was hard to tell if it was a real standing ovation or if people were just trying to get out ahead of the crush. Then he padded back off again, then back on again – possibly trying to get his Fitbit numbers up – and finally settled down to play an encore. He played three encores, each separated by a good deal of padding to and fro; by the third one the guy next to me was exasperated that he had to stay to listen to more music. But it was some more Chopin, so I was happy. And by the end, everyone joined in the standing ovation.

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