Beethoven: Sonatas Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111

Maurizio Pollini

Royal Festival Hall, 17 February 2011 4.5 stars

PolliniNo interval, no encore, no bullshit. That is how the latest instalment of the so-called Pollini Project, a run of five concerts taking place this season at the Royal Festival Hall where Maurizio Pollini visits pillars of the piano repertoire, from Boulez to Bach, Stockhausen to Schubert, was discharged.

Focussing entirely in this case on Beethoven, on the last three sonatas, in fact, proceedings ran to just over an hour, though Pollini conveyed enough emotion and depth across the three works to ensure that the concert felt much longer than its tangible duration suggested.

A peculiar magic enfolds a hall when a big name instrumentalist gives a solo recital that implies intimacy in its personnel, but rails against it in its setting. Such was the case here, with every seat in the large Festival Hall taken up with attentive and rapt listeners leaning in to catch the strange, eldritch tones of Beethoven's late period piano music as they alternately flickered, thundered, and died in the cavernous surroundings.

Pollini himself, at least in disposition, seemed little aware of this disjunction of setting and subject, cheerfully sauntering on and off the stage with the sort of serene calm reserved for elder luminaries in whatever field. He even seemed indifferent to the gang of people seated onstage, pressing in on him from behind.

The pianist's playing, however, belied this calm. Though taking its time to embed these oddly proportioned works in its inimitable flow of passion and sensitive, narrative-inclined fluency, Polliniís performance soon took flight into realms of technical and conceptual excellence that showed these works to the audience in renewed form. The variations finale of Op. 109 matched a lightness of touch with a thoughtful intelligence, spilling over into forceful mood swings at various points, to render the whole with a lived, animated character that was maintained into the serenity of its denouement. The desolate spectacle of Op. 110ís finale was wrought with grandeur, before the music, and the world, came back to life steadily and with great effort in the latter stages of the movement. The general transcendence of Op. 111's finale, wrought here in swirling, flowing shadings and blushes, crowned the pianist's formidable intellectual and expressive programme.

Pollini's touch, meanwhile, like his sensitivity to musical architecture and theme, proved textured and mobile, for instance conveying the ethereality of the second subject in the opening movement of Op. 111, or dancing with roaring agility and harsh brusqueness (underlining the strange emptiness Beethoven inscribed into those movements) across the various scherzi on the programme.

The power of Pollini's performance here lay chiefly in its exposition of the compositional process, or at least of a sort of meta-, or transcendent baseline compositional logic, that is present within these still utterly fresh and extraordinary works. Breaking free of the Sonata Form model that was already on shaky ground in his piano catalogue up to that point, Beethoven expresses a philosophical fascination with musical conventions and form in these Sonatas, handling them at times as if he didn't know what they were for, and at others as if they had been developed chiefly for him and his music. That is the how Pollini's playing felt - confused, novel, and yet altogether insightful.

Look out for further concerts in this series, where Pollini will take on Schubert in February, Debussy, Boulez and Chopin in April, and, finally, Stockhausen, Chopin, and Schumann in May. Not to be missed.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Maurizio Pollini


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