Maurizio Pollini has had a bad fall

We reported earlier this week that Martha Argerich is replacing the Italian pianist at Aix.

Apparently, he has suffered a nasty fall and will be out of action for at least a month.

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  • This is what “The Spectator” wrote last month about Pollini’s performances – I wish the pianist well for a recovery and return to health, but:

    “There’s a moment in the finale of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata when the frenzied piano writing turns unexpectedly jolly. The late Antony Hopkins described it as a bit of an anticlimax, ‘a little too near to the traditional Gypsy Dance that appears so often in the less probable 19th-century opera’.

    I’m not sure whether I agree — but one thing I can tell you is that this is the perfect moment to tap the Uber icon on your phone if you want to be whisked away during the first burst of applause, before the pianist has had the chance to play an encore.

    That’s the effect Maurizio Pollini’s playing has on me. The man has been sucking the life out of Beethoven piano sonatas for decades, but surely never so annoyingly as he did last week, when he opened the spring season of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series.

    The applause was thunderous, it’s true, but it was a particular type of applause that you hear more often at the Southbank than anywhere else: a veteran soloist being cheered to the rafters, not for the music (I hope — unless the audience were cloth-eared morons) but for being himself.

    The elderly Barenboim gets the same treatment, though it seems less absurd, because there are still lovely things happening beneath the hailstorm of wrong notes. And in the past there were master pianists, such as Curzon and Kempff, whose shaky live performances conveyed more of the essence of the music than their studio recordings: they weren’t being applauded simply for being themselves.

    In any case, Pollini’s technique is shot to pieces in a different way — far fewer wrong notes, but the legendary precision is gone. And, without that, he has nothing to say. Indeed, he gives the impression of not wanting to say anything.

    Listening to his Pathétique sonata, I wondered if he was just there to collect his cheque. He could hardly be bothered to dot the chords in the Grave opening, which should be tightly coiled so the main theme shoots up the keyboard like a rocket. That didn’t happen. In all three Beethoven sonatas, Pollini ironed out contrasts of tempo and dynamics. Also, he kept shaving the ends of phrases and squeezing pauses, as if to say, ‘Let’s get this over with.’

    I don’t see why we should make excuses for him because he’s 75 years old. Knowing when to retire is one of the tests of a great pianist. Horowitz deserves full marks for pressing on until the end: the recordings of his mid-eighties are among his most treasurable, his bravura technique freakishly intact (most of the time) and his touch more luminous than ever.

    Richter tailored his repertoire in order to compensate for his frailty, with mixed but often miraculous results, before stopping just in time. But the ultimate masterclass in retirement was given by Alfred Brendel, whose 2007 live performance of Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata at Salzburg was simultaneously understated, deeply felt and revelatory. The next year he stepped away from the concert platform, leaving us wanting more. Which is how it should be.

    I kept thinking of Brendel during Pollini’s phoned-in recital because, three nights earlier, I’d spotted him in the audience at the Wigmore Hall to hear Pierre-Laurent Aimard. This recital was a triumph in almost every respect. Only the end of the programme disappointed.

    Aimard has uncovered the piano music of the Russian composer Nikolai Obukhov (1892–1954), which the programme notes hailed as the missing link between Scriabin and Messiaen, ‘a sort of rainbow bridge from Moscow to Paris’. Really? It sounded more like thinned-out Sorabji to me, and not a patch on the kaleidoscopic wonders of the work that preceded it, Julian Anderson’s Sensation.

    Anderson wrote this collection of pieces — some of them austere, some darting and mercurial — with Aimard’s finely spun virtuosity in mind. In the past I’ve worried that this technique might be fraying under the pressure of the pianist’s workload. At the Wigmore he put those fears to rest.

    The evening began with Liszt’s little-known first version of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, an early work in which the conventionally sweet cadences of 1834 alternate with the spare harmonies of late Liszt and, even more surprisingly, chirruping worthy of Janacek. Then Aimard launched into late Scriabin without a pause. I hope I wasn’t the only listener who took a second or two to realise.

    As for Debussy’s Étude pour les degrés chromatiques, I can’t imagine it sounding more spectrally delicate than it did on the 1899 Bechstein, played in the former Bechstein Hall. (Like our royal family, the building lost its German name during the first world war.) So, all in all, this was a delicious combination of soloist, programme and venue: typical Wigmore, just as the Pollini recital was typical Southbank.

    • Just the sort of bitchy, pseudo-connoisseur write-up one expects from “The Spectator”, embittered even further by the decline and fall of its party.

    • I am not sure what point this comment is trying to make. You wish Mr Pollini well and then go on to copy and paste in extenso a savage review of one of his recent concerts. Was this really just an opportunity to remind us of that review’s unfortunate existence? Damian Thompson does not just have some rather odd ideas about Pollini’s musicianship (an opinion to which he is perfectly entitled), but he also has some rather unpleasant ideas about the sort of people one finds in audiences at different venues. This idea that a Wigmore Hall audience is more refined than the apparently largely philistine audience at the Southbank Centre is just pure snobbery, but a snobbery familiar to many Londoners. I really would not take the Thompson review very seriously at all. As an assessment of Pollini’s musicianship I would describe it as anomalous at best.

      • Of course we all wish Pollini a speedy recovery. But his art doesn’t age well, i’m sorry to rather agree with the review, (i know nothing about the reviewer!)- having admired him in the 1980s for intellectual grasp, pianism, etc, now sadly shaky. I was deloght once, in London, to arrive and find that Alicia de Larrocha would replace him at short notice, and if i’d known in time, i’d be in Aix this evening for Martha & S Kovacevich.
        I saw the aged Kempff and Curzon, agreed on sporadic late greatness for Kempff, (but not for Curzon); to the late/great list i’d add Arrau.
        All that doesn’t stop me wishing Pollini well!

    • Maybe Pollini wasn’t in top form that night. Big deal. Happens all the time and to the best of them too. Doesn’t take away an iota from his earned greatness.

  • He has an all Chopin recital scheduled in Carnegie Hall, New York, on May 21. There is no indication as of now on their website as to what will happen to that

  • This review is nonsense. I was there. The playing had so much to say, a lifetime of accrued wisdom. The Appasionata, especially, was significant. Yet another ‘critic’, like a eunuch, being there, seeing it done, but not able to do it themselves. I, for one, would rather trust the audience, than this bitter ‘saddo’, who clearly knows nothing of live performance.

  • There’s nothing wrong with aging, and losing (or not losing) one’s faculties as one does. Just because Pollini (or anyone else, for that matter) was better when he was younger doesn’t take away from his accomplishments; rather, all it means is that he doesn’t play as well as he used to.

    Who’s going to try to argue, for example, that Billie Holiday’s later recordings hold a candle to her earlier recordings, which are among the greatest in the history of music? And why would anyone feel the need to maintain such a patently absurd position?

    Life happens; we age, deteriorate, and eventually (or not so eventually) die. And, sure, some of us acquire some wisdom along the way. But what’s the point of holding older folks up to the standards of their younger selves?

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