Visitors to the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday night were fortunate to experience a performance by the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini that conveyed a depth of intelligent insight – along with a wellspring of subtle feeling and emotion –that befitted his now legendary status.
Pollini's pianistic technique is bewildering, in twentieth century repertoire as much as in that of the nineteenth century, yet he rarely fails to qualify that technique in performance with a sense of narrative, a sense of emotional identification with the music, that ensures a powerful and affective profile to his playing.
His focus on Tuesday night was on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century piano music. Whilst it would have been nice to hear something more recent from a pianist who excels in contemporary repertoire, the programme was promising enough to dispel the force of any such initial reservations. True to form Pollini delivered a perceptive and penetrating recital, crowned with three generously given encores, that was filled with clarity and with pathos. A clearly appreciative Festival Hall crowd extended the humble Italian a warm and vociferous reception.
The concert began with an exciting interpretation of Schumann's Kreisleriana that was alternately energetic and hardy on the one hand, and almost unbearably poignant and affecting on the other. This is music of bold innovation, and Pollini effortlessly communicated the magnificent youthful vigour and freshness of Schumann's colourful set of fantasies. The pianist articulated Schumann's trademark syncopations and cross rhythms, particularly in the playful final movement, with dexterity and precision. His wild intensity in the D minor sections of the first movement (a little shaky initially but ultimately effective), and his breathless gallop in the seventh, belied the occasional charge laid at his feet of cold perfectionism. Pollini has long held a special affinity for contemplative melancholy, and his sad and expressive legato in Schumann's slow movements communicated with great refinement a sort of singing sadness that was as entrancingly pure as it was moving. Pollini brought the enigma of the music to the fore; the disappearing rhetoric of the work's final bars sounded a wonderful note of final equivocation. Rarely has Schumann sounded so serene here, and so ambiguous there.
Next on the agenda were Chopin's four Mazurkas, Op. 33, and his Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20. Pollini's Chopin interpretations follow the modern tactic of mediating between garlanded expressiveness and lucid poise, though he of course more often than not leans towards the latter. The composed mystery of his recording of the Études was evident here both in his performance of the Mazurkas and in his second encore, where he offered a precipitous reading of the Revolutionary Étude. Pollini is a master of the obscure, of the remote, and his performance of the opening G-sharp minor Mazurka floated by in an appealingly beclouded fashion. The middle, major-key Mazurkas appeared more clearly defined and forceful; Pollini's sense of play and his taste for rhythmic buoyancy was at the forefront here as it was in his well-paced and cleverly differentiated performance of the Scherzo. In contrast to this, the final (B-minor) Mazurka ushered in intimations of profundity that seemed to look forward to the complex interior meditation and exterior splendour of the concluding work on the programme, the first book of the Debussy Préludes. Pollini showed himself in the Chopin a master at generating productive internal tensions between the music's inner voices, and also between the contrasting panels of music that the composer so boldly welds together. The penetration of his final reprise of the main theme, so delicately introduced, exemplified the nuance of his interpretation.
By the time of the Debussy, pianist and audience were utterly in sync; both were warmed by the preceding music, and prone for more. The Préludes of course lie at the precipice of modern music; they marry ambiguity with extroversion in a musical idiom that has proved perhaps more influential than any other to the course of twentieth century music, particularly to notated music and jazz. The pianist clearly appreciates that idiom and showed himself alert to the precious colours and tones of Debussy's score. He sacrificed a degree of clarity to a fitting ambiguity of texture, yet one was never left with the impression of purposelessness; rather it was always clear that ambiguity was central to the interpretative programme, as it had been all night. Though Pollini never quite approached the stately ineffability of Walter Gieseking's account he nevertheless exuded a total mastery of effect, whether he was ringing tonal revolution from the opening Danseuses de Delphes, or building a potent climax in La cathédrale engloutie. The subtleties of the score were securely in place: Pollini displayed a willingness to always moderate the pattern of his phrasing to better suit the flow of the music, and he continuously engineered local variances of dynamic and colour that pushed his reading into the highest realms of interpretative nuance. This music's unresolved anxiety – some of the Préludes share a sense of self-absorbed dislocation with the composer's Pelléas et Mélisande – was made to compel by Pollini in an account that never wavered from the highest goals of modern performance: precision married to emotional and aesthetic insight.
The three encores – a dazzling performance of the tenth of Liszt's Transcendental Studies, the aforementioned Revolutionary Étude, and Chopin's Opus 23, the Ballade in G minor – proved effective in providing rhetorical contrast to the preceding programme. Pollini once again showed off his enviable technique in projecting with clarity the complicated cross rhythms of the Revolutionary and the Transcendental Études, whilst he dazzled in the final item, the G-minor Ballade, which he dashed off with virtuosic aplomb. This was, in sum, a recital of the highest order where all the cumulative experience of a modern virtuoso of the piano was brought to bear on core repertoire, to produce interpretations as fresh as they were thrilling. Pollini returns to the Festival Hall in March of next year in an as yet unannounced programme, an event that stands out like a beacon in next season's musical calendar in London, and on the evidence of Tuesday's recital it will be nigh on unmissable.