Following on from last week’s post of 8 pianists playing the opening measures of Schubert’s last sonata, here’s another interesting selection of styles, tempos and interpretations, this time in Chopin’s Opus 25 No. 9 Etude (‘Butterfly’). The pianists, in order of appearance are:

1. Vladimir Ashkenazy
2. Wilhelm Backhaus
3. Idil Biret
4. Vladimir Horowitz
5. Phillipe Cassard
6. Murray Perahia
7. Maurizio Pollini
8. Leonard Bernstein
9. Grigory Sokolov

I particularly like Ash, Perahia, Pollini and Sokolov, who can do truly amazing things with Chopin. There’s a robustness in his playing, yet it’s light and playful when required. Pollini’s version is more light-hearted, joyful even.

Thanks to the Collaborative Piano Blog and Harold Gray (Portland Piano International) for flagging this up.

“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

Monday 24th January, Wigmore Hall

Schubert – German Dances, Ländler, Valses Sentimentales; Brahms – 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119; Beethoven – Piano Sonata Opus 110; Chopin – Four Ballades

Encores: Chopin – Nocturne Op 9, No. 2; Dudley Moore Parody on a Beethoven Sonata

There is a mysterious fulfilling pleasure in watching any manual task being performed with infinite skill and grace, the agility and accuracy required, the finesse of touch and judgement. Thus, we admired Piers Lane’s superior technical prowess in the four Ballades of Chopin, and the applause that came spontaneously after he had completed the first one was, in part, an appreciation of the monumental technical effort involved in playing some of the most challenging music of the piano repertoire. After the fourth was safely delivered, the applause was even more rapturous, and perhaps tinged with relief, that the performance had been completed safely, accurately, and without mishap. Indeed, the playing was utterly pristine, and if it was lacking in depth or emotion at times, at least the performer’s technical assuredness could be admired.

This was my first concert of the new year, a varied programme which contained two great edifices of the standard repertoire: Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata, and Chopin’s Four Ballades.

The concert opened with a selection of Schubert’s D783 German Dances, Ländler (D790, No. 3), and Valses Sentimentales (D779). It is easy to forget, when hearing works like this in a formal concert setting, that these are salon pieces, written for the regular Schubertiades, which often took place in Schubert’s home, or the homes of his friends, and where assembled guests would take to the floor and dance. There is a light-heartedness in these pieces – indeed, some are positively rollicking – yet many of them are shot through with Schubert’s distinctive harmonic shifts, and the melancholy is never far away. They were a pleasing, inoffensive opener, and one had the sense of Piers Lane clearing the way for the big warhorses to come.

I was not, until this evening, familiar with the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op 119, though I had listened to extracts of them on iTunes earlier in the day. The first, a meditation on descending thirds, was utterly sublime, “teeming with dissonances”, as Brahms warned Clara Schumann, and freighted with sadness, as each note of every bar was sounded so carefully. The second was breathless and agitated, with a contrastingly tender middle section, whose melody returned at the end, allowing the music to fade away nostalgically. The third was playful and graceful, while the fourth, a rhapsody marked Allegro risoluto, was confident and full-blooded, full of pent-up energy, and generous in its thematic content.

And so to the Beethoven Sonata….. Here, I must admit to a love affair with this piece which borders on an obsession. It is my Desert Island Disc (a choice I share with tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste), but I would not take any old recording with me to my Desert Island. No, it has to be the right one. For me, Arrau is hard to match (as he is with all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas); equally, Glenn Gould, for all his eccentricities (and on the recording I have, one can ‘enjoy’ his humming and muttering accompaniments in the Arioso), brings a Quasi una Fantasia feel to the piece, segueing effortlessly from one movement to another, in a continuous stream of Beethovenian consciousness, while, in his hands, the final fugue is a peon of praise, as glorious as a peel of celebratory bells, life-affirming and uplifting. Another favourite performance, or rather performances, given by a friend in unusual and intimate venues, is remarkable for its meditative qualities, and its ability to remind us that this is music that goes to the very heart of what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. This is music which speaks of the meaning of life, shared values, what it means to be alive, and which debates the basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which still have relevance to us today. Written towards the end of the composer’s life, at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s last three sonatas (the Opus 110 is the last but one) prove that a whole universe can be contained in a single piece of music. This is not just music; this is philosophy.

Of course, Piers Lane had no idea that I was placing such a huge responsibility upon him as he played the opening measures of the Opus 110, and, while I enjoyed his playing, it was no Desert Island choice. In the Arioso, particularly the section where the music literally dies back, and comes back to life little by little (and this is Beethoven’s actual instruction in the score – poi a poi di nuovo vivente), I did not feel that Piers Lane truly “breathed life” into the music, and the final fugue, which should sound triumphant, exultant with a sense of the music groping its way to daylight from some darker, outer firmament, started to unravel slightly, with uneven tempos. His playing was pristine (as it was throughout the entire performance), but it did not move me.

Chopin’s Four Ballades are considered to be some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, a fact from which I draw a certain amount of smug satisfaction, for I am learning the First Ballade, at the suggestion of my teacher. It is rare to hear them performed back to back, since they are technically and physically demanding. They are each sufficiently different to be performed as stand-alone works, but it was wonderful to hear all four in a one siting.

Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Once again, I felt Piers Lane’s rendition of these monumental works lacked real depth, and it was only at the Fourth where he really seemed to settle into the music and finally get into his stride. The piano was too loud at times, so loud that it hurt, and occasionally the tone was marred by some very dodgy harmonics, a problem I noticed when I heard Leonskaja at the Wigmore last autumn (suggesting it’s the piano rather than the performer at fault). I do think it is important to remember the kind of sound Chopin was said to produce when he performed, or which he encouraged his students to strive for, and to bear in mind that the kind of piano he preferred (a French Pleyel) had a smaller voice than a modern concert Steinway. A little tempering of the fortes and fortissimos here and there would have brought more of Chopin’s famous “souplesse” to the music. (Interestingly, Piers Lane has talked very elegantly on the subject of Chopin’s music, as part of Radio 3’s bicentenary celebrations last year.) Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance, and the applause and curtain calls were absolutely deserved.

The Nocturne, played as a first encore, was relaxed and elegant, the fiorituras tripping off his fingers, as if he had just improvised them there and then. Perhaps this is because it is easier to play an encore like this when the main job of the night is done? But the evening was not yet over. Returning to the stage once again, Piers Lane announced that he would play “a very naughty piece” – Dudley Moore’s hilariously clever parody of a Beethoven sonata.

Wigmore Hall

Dudley Moore playing his Beethoven Parody