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Maurizio Pollini’s All-Chopin recital at the Kennedy Center

Written By | May 18, 2017

Pianist Maurizio Pollini. (Image via Mr. Pollini’s web site)

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2017 – Elegant, dignified and gentlemanly as always, legendary pianist and long-time Chopin specialist Maurizio Pollini slowly but precisely strode towards the Steinway Concert Grand to the appreciative applause of a large, almost capacity audience of piano aficionados in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Tuesday evening. The 75-year old artist was there for a one-night-only all-Chopin recital, and by and large he did not disappoint.

Mr. Pollini’s program presented familiar and relatively unfamiliar works by the Polish master-composer still regarded today as perhaps the premiere poet of the piano. Indeed, with few exceptions, Chopin is the only major Romantic-era composer who created a large body of works almost exclusively for that instrument.

In constantly precarious health, Chopin made his way to Paris from his native Poland, spending most of his short but productive career in the City of Light, making his living largely from offering piano lessons to a well-heeled clientele and composing most of his piano gems on commissions offered by admiring patrons. Of course, his long-running affair with controversial French novelist George Sand likely helped out Chopin’s lifestyle as well.

In his time, Chopin was regarded as a pianist whose skills were on a par with those of another legendary pianist-composer, Franz Liszt. However, due to the consumption that would eventually end his life before he was forty, Chopin simply did not possess the physical power of his Hungarian friend and colleague. He is said to have compensated for this by offering an almost infinite variety of sound and effects on the piano, even if his efforts rarely achieved the fortissimos that Liszt apparently exceeded on a regular basis.

It seemed to be this kind of subtlety that Mr. Pollini was channeling in his performance here. In a program consisting primarily of Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades, his style of playing was subtle, often muted, but containing multitudes of fleeting feelings and highly nuanced romantic emotions. It was an evening of intellect and charm interrupted suddenly from time to time with intense outbursts of passion.

In short, Mr. Pollini interpreted Chopin’s music as the composer may have interpreted his own works, containing the music’s intense emotions within a slightly limited frame while expressing them as some painters express themselves in miniature works that nonetheless leap out at the viewer due to the intensity of color and hue.

On the whole, Mr. Pollini’s selection of Nocturnes ran the gamut from the understated to the surprisingly bold. He contrasted these with a performance of the composer’s Ballade No 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 – a performance that was notable for the brilliant clarity expressed in its difficult and rapid runs.

It was also a joy to hear a wonderful performance of Chopin’s slightly less-performed “Berceuse,” Op 57, a work that’s cast as a lullaby but one that’s really a theme and variations – some of them wickedly brilliant – generally performed to the background of a drone-like, repetitive figuration in the bass in a manor that looks forward to a 20th century composition like Ravel’s famed, now pop-culture “Bolero.”

The second half of the program was dominated by Mr. Pollini’s dashing performance of Chopin’s mighty Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. Written in four movements, and far more of a symphony for piano than it is an actual sonata, Chopin’s Third consists of a pair of relatively subdued central movements bookended by an outer pair of thunderously dramatic and passionate essays.

Mr. Pollini was most effective in these outer movements, along with the chameleon-like slower third movement, which seems like a thoughtful essay on life itself. His performance of the light and rapid-fire 2nd movement scherzo was perhaps a bit less effective as its light, melodic statements seemed obliterated by a tempo that was taken a bit too fast.

Mr. Pollini saved the best for last, however, with a genuinely exciting, almost “revolutionary” interpretation of the sonata’s grand, polonaise-like finale, a fiendishly difficult yet tremendously exciting and grand essay of triumph.

True, some notes were lost here and there in this movement’s rapid runs, although the pianist disposed of them quietly, unlike the late Horowitz, who tended to drop notes by the bucket load. After all, discretion is the better part of valor.

Tuesday evening’s audience obviously felt the same, bringing Mr. Pollini back for a pair of encores, the later of which was the massive and well-known Ballade in G minor, which the audience once again appreciated with thunderous applause.

Famous artists nearing or already in the twilights of their careers can miss steps on occasion that they never would have missed when they were younger, newly famous and still on the make. But age also brings with it knowledge, wisdom and insight, three key skills much in evidence during Mr. Pollini’s welcome recital.

We’ve noticed that some of his recent reviews have been snide and unappreciative, yet we can’t understand why these reviewers seem to think such snarky remarks are deserved by an artist with a long and distinguished career. Critics need to take things in perspective, and needn’t try to further their careers by brandishing the kind of ignorance and disdain that may gain them online clicks in the short term at the expense of veteran artists whose accomplishments they can never hope to equal.

Mr. Pollini at age 75 isn’t quite the Pollini he was at 35. On the other hand, who among us getting on in years has the energy we did at a much younger age? Far better to appreciate the mature art and wisdom of elder masters than to hoot at them for not knowing all the latest dance steps. The ability to do so, in fact, may mark the beginning of genuine wisdom, something we could use a lot more of as the 21st century progresses into darkness.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17