Pollini shows age-defying mastery in landmark Carnegie recital

Mon Apr 30, 2018 at 1:13 pm
Maurizio Pollini performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall on the fiftieth anniversary of his debut there.

Maurizio Pollini performed Sunday at Carnegie Hall on the fiftieth anniversary of his debut there.

Maurizio Pollini’s Sunday recital marked the fiftieth anniversary of his debut at Carnegie Hall. In the decades since, Pollini’s many appearances have together made up one of the most fruitful artistic partnerships in the venue’s storied history, but some of his recent performances have raised concern about faltering technique. On Sunday the seventy-six-year-old master seemed to be channeling the strength of his youth, as he delivered his finest New York recital in years.

The first half was all Chopin, the composer with whom Pollini is most associated. The Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 45, was a strong start to the program, showing crisp attack and a measured approach. Rather than trying to lay into the cascading chords at full tilt, he picked a tempo that he could handle without scrambling to get his fingers around all the notes — and shaped his phrases to fill out the extra time, making them breathe naturally even at a slower pace.

The Barcarolle, Op. 60, was similarly impressive. Though Pollini got slightly tangled in the closing runs, his facility on the whole was remarkable. His variety of touch, in particular, added enormously to the interpretation, giving him a wide range of hues with which to color the music.

Would that he had observed the same moderation in Sonata No. 2 as he had at the beginning of the program. The torrid, limping rhythms of the first movement never felt settled; though the stormy bursts of passion in his playing were convincing, there was always a sense that he was struggling with the music’s technical demands.

He navigated the Scherzo nimbly enough, but it was the slow trio sections that were most striking in the second movement, radiating a calm warmth. The Marche funèbre, perhaps the most familiar movement of the sonata, was brilliantly realized, growing seamlessly from somber stillness to stoic grandeur, and entrancing the listener in the quiet reflection of its middle section.

If his Chopin selections laid to rest most technical worries, Pollini’s reading of Book II of Debussy’s Préludes showed that he is still a true master of his instrument. Both polished and musically rich, this was a memorable performance of a familiar work. “Brouillards,” the first of the twelve in this set, was taken again at a deliberate tempo, one that allowed Pollini to focus on coloring the glistening arpeggios. In “La puerta del vino” he barely whispered the sultry rhythm of the habanera on the bottom, accentuating the right-hand melody over a steamy haze.

“Bruyères” was blissfully calm, spacious and bright, as was Pollini’s mesmerizing performance of “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune.” In his shimmering rendition of “Ondine,” the arpeggios spun out like pure silk, and the exhilarating “Feux d’artifice” sparkled with harp-like glissandos and shining resonance.

At a recital of this magnitude, a string of encores is inevitable; Pollini gave three (all Chopin), which felt like just the right number. Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor showed dramatic flair and romantic virtuosity, while the Berceuse in D-flat Major contrasted with its tender sighs in a warm, placid reading. He made one last show of flash with the “Winter Wind” etude, Op. 25, No. 11. By this point, his fingers seemed to be tiring a bit as the passagework became unsteady, but he played with violent passion nonetheless.

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