Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chopin list

Maurizio Pollini at a recent New York recital. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

It was somehow heartwarming to see that a great pianist without a marketing juggernaut behind him can still sell out a large house, as Maurizio Pollini did last Sunday in his Celebrity Series appearance at Symphony Hall. Of course Pollini has something besides marketing behind him - what he has, for lack of a better word, is civilization. Now brushing 70, Pollini is one of the last avatars of a lost ideal: the cultivated man. The son of a prominent modernist architect, and the scion of an extended artistic family, Pollini was raised in a kind of hothouse of aesthetic sophistication. He began public performance on the piano at age 9; by 18, he had won the prestigious Chopin Competition, which launched his international career.

Since then, Pollini has carefully built an enormous repertoire, but on Sunday, he returned to that early turning point, offering a tour through Chopiniana of all shapes and sizes. The concert was loosely structured to stretch from obscurities and experiments to warhorses like the "Marche fun├Ębre" and the "Heroic" Polonaise in A-flat Major, but beyond that the program seemed to lack a unifying theme or point of view. Then again, Pollini's not really known as an original musical thinker: his style could perhaps be summed up as Rubinstein, Reconsidered. And then perhaps reconsidered again. For though Pollini's color and temperament owe a lot to the great Polish pianist, there's a thoughtfulness about his playing that edges toward rumination (and micro-management) rather than expansive statement. And given that structure is not Chopin's strong suit, this can sometimes give the impression of diffident meandering.

But rarely has meandering been so compelling. Alas, the opening Fantaisie in F minor was given a coolly energetic attack, but made no lasting impression; the four Mazurkas of Op. 30, however, were all given focused and distinct profiles. Likewise the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor (which includes that notoriously funereal march) may have felt episodic - it's so variegated it almost has to - but each segment, considered individually, was highly wrought, and the whirlwind of triplets in the final Presto were brought off with dazzlingly grim sang froid.

Perhaps the richest, most satisfying playing of the program came at the top of its second half, in calibratedly lush readings of the two Nocturnes of Opus 48 (it was here, and in the encores, that Pollini's touring piano really showed what it could do). And from then on the pianist seemed to be on a roll. He accelerated steadily through the many shifts of the roiling Polonaise in F-sharp minor, then paused - barely - to ponder the unfolding of Ballade No. 4 (also in F minor), before hitting the gas again for the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major. He missed a few notes in the opening bars of this showpiece (or maybe just skipped them) but the excitement of the crowd was palpable as he charged at a seemingly ever-increasingly clip through the descending octaves of the "horses on the plain" section (he hung onto the climax, but just barely), before bringing the piece to a satisfyingly commanding close.

Perhaps this took a lot out of him, because Pollini had to be coaxed back (after four bows) for an encore. Surprisingly, the first of these was the B-Flat Minor Scherzo, Op. 31, as thorny and impacted a piece as any on the program, which Pollini dispatched with alacrity. His second encore, however, offered what the crowd was waiting for: the transportingly beautiful Op. 57 Berceuse, with its lyrical flights in the right-hand cascading back down onto its dreamily repeating left-hand motif. I'm not sure I've heard a lighter, or lovelier, version of this standard, and after a program of constant challenge, its gentle voice felt like something close to solace.