Maurizio Pollini plays Beethoven’s last sonatas

“Maestro Pollini”, as the interviewer in the programme rather sycophantically calls him, is presenting a five-concert series at the Royal Festival Hall entitled ‘The Pollini Project’, intended, as the Italian pianist says in the interview, to offer “an overall flavour of the keyboard repertoire, from the Baroque to that great master of the 20th century, Stockhausen” to a London audience he describes as “almost unique………so enthusiastic, attentive……..with lots of young people”. The five concerts offer a fairly broad brush of piano music from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, to Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (a composer with whom Pollini claims a particular affinity), Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, Debussy’s Etudes, and the last sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert. The final concert in the series features music by Stockhausen, Schumann and Chopin.

Pollini is a fairly regular visitor to the RFH, and I was very sorry to miss his Chopin birthday recital last year, as I have heard he is good with Chopin. I have not heard him before, neither live nor on disc. Last night, the second concert of the series, he played the last three sonatas of Beethoven, which are a somewhat different kettle of pianistic fish from Chopin, being profoundly emotional, with universal values, and in possession of “philosophy in music”, if you will (that is not to say that Chopin does not posses these attributes in his music, because he does, in different ways….). The last sonatas combine sublimity and a certain roughness, and a skilled performer, who understands these pieces intimately, both metaphorically and physically, should be able to combine both elements convincingly.

The Opus 109 begins with that memorable, lyrical opening melody. It was pleasantly played, if a little choppy in places (what my teacher calls “notey” playing). The second movement variations did not grab me, but I have no criticism of his playing per se which was pristine and technically flawless. There was a sense of Pollini settling in to his programme.

Readers of this blog and my musical friends will know already that I am very devoted to the middle sonata of the three, the Opus 110. It is my Desert Island Disc, and I am very fussy about it. Piers Lane failed to move with it a couple of weeks ago at Wigmore Hall in a rather workmanlike performance. To me, Pollini hurried through it, not allowing us enough time to enjoy the beautiful, serene first movement, while the final fugue, in its second incarnation, was rushed and muddy in places so that its wonderful “paean of praise” was lost. There were some nice parts in the Arioso, but his fortissimos were sometimes too much and verged on Hammer Horror soundtrack in places. Some of the quieter passages were also marred by an unidentifiable buzzing in the auditorium (someone trying to tweet by Morse code, perhaps?), a good deal of coughing in the audience (well, I suppose it is the time of year for coughs and colds), and the pianist’s own huffing and snuffling.

Pollini’s playing style is quite uncomfortable to watch too, though it is unlikely that anyone will ever replicate Glenn Gould’s bizarre, crouched posture. He sits close up to the keyboard, almost hunched over it (though he’s not tall – I know this because he walked right past us when we were having a post-concert drink), with his elbows jammed to his sides. He looked awkward, and it was often a surprise to see his arms go out to the highest or lowest registers of the keyboard.

Having said all that, the Opus 111 was fantastic. He brought an appropriate roughness and “bump and grind” to the opening movement, while the second movement variations were full of lyricism, sublime and meditative, while in the more up-tempo variations, Pollini demonstrated he could more than cope with Beethoven’s sheer weirdness and nuttiness (a feature common to the late works in general). Some of the trills in the highest registers fluttered as if carried on a fragile breath, and in other places we heard bells ringing, and repeated notes which seemed to nod forward to the minimalist music of  John Adams and Philip Glass (and I’ve never felt that about Beethoven before!).

He received five curtain calls at the end, and many members of the audience were on their feet by the third call. Behind us, a group of Pollini tifosi whooped and cheered, much to the irritation of my companion who grumbled “I can’t stand that stuff!”. Since he played the three sonatas straight through without an interval, there was still time after the concert to enjoy a leisurely drink in the bar. Maestro Pollini came down to the foyer of the RFH to receive plaudits and sign copies of his Beethoven CD.

The next concert is in the series, Schubert’s last three sonatas, is on Saturday 26th February.

The Pollini Project


  1. I agree a break between 959 and 960 is inescapable. I actually have a recording of Pollini in the first two of the trio and I really enjoy his Schubert – I just couldn’t fit two concerts in.

    Growling? Really? Sounds like another artist where the cheap seats work best!

    With regard to Kissin, I’m inclined to agree. In some ways his very first discs from the St Petersburg Conservatory(?) and Carnegie Hall concerts are more enjoyable than his recent fare, as he seems less inhibited.

    It’s funny that you should mention Lang Lang’s style. My old piano teacher used to call him Bang Bang and its certainly interesting to see the looks exchanged between Kissin and Lang Lang during the Piano Extravaganza concert footage from Verbier – not much love lost there!

    Good luck with the diploma work!

  2. I was also at the concert on Tuesday and it certainly divided opinion. Here are two respected critics that were completely at odds with each other:

    I agree that op109 was workmanlike and I almost felt like it was a warm-up. In contrast to the other reviewers here I thought that op110 was the pick of the bunch; it was almost like another pianist had stepped to the stage.

    op111 was also higher quality than 109 and I too enjoyed the high register trills in the aria, although one of my friends felt that it could have been a little more serene and in hindsight I agree.

    It’s funny but I think omitting the break caused Pollini more problems as the audience almost felt like there needed to be more – yet how can you demand it when a person’s just played the final trio?

    For those heading into the Schubert trio, I hope for your sake that he avoids playing back-to-back; “heavenly lengths” anyone?

    With regard to the noise, I’ve heard Pollini before and also found that his “breathing” is quite intrusive, accordingly I opted for a seat in the gods to mitigate any unintended performance!

    In summary then, a slightly uneven performance with some good touches in there. For my part, I think that Pollini’s powers are on the wane. Interestingly, both the Guardian and the Independent waxed lyrical about Kissin’s performance at the Barbican – which seems ironic given that he’s also catigated for being a cool, perfectionist customer not unlike dear Maurizio…

    • Hello, and thanks for your comments: interesting to hear from someone else who was at the concert, a more personal response to the music, rather than professional reviewers who feel they have the last word on such things! I’ve heard these sonatas played straight through and with an interval between the Op 110 and 111: both presentations work equally well – sometimes it just depends on venue and performer.

      I think an artist like Pollini still has much to offer us: he clearly puts the music before ego (a recent interview on Radio 4, ahead of his opening Bach concert, was revealing, albeit brief), and has obviously lived with his composers for many years. His commitment and fidelity to the music is without doubt and I think younger, more egotistical performers such as Lang Lang and James Rhodes could learn a thing or two from him….. Having said that, as a concert, I found it rather lacking in sparkle. I know these pieces well and it is refreshing to go to a concert where the performer offers new insights on a work.

      As for the snuffling, he’s not nearly as bad as Paul Lewis, who actually growled during the Arioso in the Op 110 when I heard him at Wigmore Hall in 2007!

      I will be interested to hear how the Schubert concert goes. Sadly, I could not get a ticket as it is a sell out. I cannot see how he could possibly play them back to back – they are so much bigger than the Beethoven trio, and, in some ways, the D960 is a true “stand alone” piece (another of my Desert Island Discs!).

      I find Kissin an interesting case: he was raved about so much when he was younger (and he’s not exactly old now, at not quite 40!) but I find him cold, almost robotic in concert. One cannot fault his technique, but there’s a distance between him and audience which can be off-putting.

      All this discussion serves to remind us that concert-going is a very personal, subjective experience, and one person’s mediocre night out is another’s wonderful evening!

  3. Love your Hammer Horror. I probably would’ve called it Hammerklavier Horror!!!
    Say what you like about Maestrino Pollini, it takes balls to perform the last 3 sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert in the space of a fortnight.
    And yes, whooping at the end of concerts sets my teeth on edge. Would that the perpetrators would confine themselves to macramé, real ale and World Music!!!!!

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