This was originally intended to be the penultimate programme of Pollini’s five-concert Project spanning the gamut of keyboard repertoire from Bach to Boulez (albeit with a large Classical Period-sized gap), but has been postponed for a couple of months due to illness. In my opinion this has made for a more fitting end to the series, not only following chronological order but also concluding by challenging the audience with something ‘modern’ rather than the obvious crowd-pleasing Chopin of what became the fourth Project concert. Appropriately, this concert in fact draws a connection, perhaps not immediately obvious, between the hugely different Chopin and Boulez.
Lion in winter. Concert audiences now whoop and whistle for their artists, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this affects Maurizio Pollini. At sixty-nine, he has been before the public for fifty years, ever since winning the Chopin International Competition in 1960 at the age of eighteen. His white hair is wispy on top (this is art, so let’s call it an aureole). He still walks briskly to the piano and hits the first keys with unnerving alacrity. When Rosa Ponselle made her London debut, the veteran diva Nellie Melba gave her a friendly warning: nothing but nothing could induce British audiences to give a standing ovation. Dame Nellie was reportedly quite put out when her young American rival earned a standing ovation at Covent Garden every night. Pollini earns the same, even when he ends his program, as he did last night, with Boulez’s fearsome Piano Sonata no. 2. One way to insure that posterity will consider you a fool is to mock modern music, but in the annals of unapproachable and uningratiating works, the Boulez sonata must attain a kind of summa.
More years ago than I care to remember (OK, about ten), Edward Moore, my piano teacher at university, told me he used to be a great fan of Maurizio Pollini, but had grown disenchanted with him because he thought his playing had become completely dry, overly safe and devoid of emotion. Perhaps because he was by far the best teacher I’d ever had, I took this opinion seriously and allowed it to influence my perception of Pollini ever after, remaining a devout sceptic despite his evidently immense popularity.