Maurizio Pollini: A Lion in Winter

(Photo by  Cosimo Filippini / DG)

I was tempted to title this post, “Should Maurizio Pollini retire?”, as a response to the click-baity Spectator review from March that called upon the legendary Italian pianist, now 75, to do just that. But it’s not for me, or any other writer, to dictate terms to Pollini, who’s certainly past his prime but has earned the right to leave the stage on his own terms. And, besides, everyone knows the answer to a headline-in-the-form-of-a-question is always “no,” so I would have been pointlessly tipping my hand.

So: after cancelling a November 2015 recital date at Strathmore, Pollini returned to Washington for the first time since 2013 with an all-Chopin recital at the Kennedy Center on May 16. The program was a familiar one: four Nocturnes, the Berceuse, and some of the large-scale Chopin pieces that Pollini has owned for decades: the Third and Fourth Ballades, the B minor Scherzo, and the Third Sonata. But what would not have been familiar to anyone who knows Pollini’s recordings but hasn’t heard him live recently was his technical fallibility, and even frailty.

Pollini no longer commands the cool Apollonian perfection — the sculptural precision and supremely controlled flexibility — that defined him as the archetypal modern (“objective”) pianist of the 20th century. There were some glaring wrong notes last night, but more than that, a general diminishment of a technique that was beyond reproach a decade or so ago (the last time I personally heard a “perfect” Pollini recital was 2002): an unevenness of touch, a flinty tone, a brusqueness that disturbed his lines, a more limited palette of colors, and an underpowering of climaxes that were was once fiercesome. Many of the challenging runs — in the Ballades, Scherzo, and Sonata — sounded either cautious or nervy. To be fair, though, Pollini remarkably saved his most technically impressive playing for end of the night, with the formidable coda of the Third Sonata emerging with clarity and sweeping grandeur.

This is the point in the review of an aging but beloved pianist where a writer typically goes on about the compensations of old age in the face of diminished powers: a new-found warmth or the wisdom of years. But that wouldn’t be quite right in Pollini’s case. For the most part, his playing was as cool and detached as ever. The Berceuse — a lullaby that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed hearing from Pollini even his prime — sounded high strung and almost hectoring. The two Op. 55 Nocturnes were similarly sharply etched and played for brisk drama. The lovely second theme of the Third Sonata’s first movement was brought out with minimal rubato and without an ounce of sentiment. On the other side of the coin, the two Op. 27 Nocturnes, which opened the recital, did sound more relaxed and even at times rhapsodic, with Pollini drawing out some duskier colors.

Likewise, there were few new insights into these pieces that Pollini has been performing for over half a century. His conceptions of these works are basically unaltered: he’s still all about intelligent organization, control, and proportion. He knows how to generate drama and excitement from pacing and structure, and he still does at the right moments, just in more measured amounts. The grand architecture of the large-scale works remains there in outline, even if it is no longer supported by an unassailable technical foundation.  He no longer over-awes with his soaring power or expressive contrasts.

If the recital had concluded with just the announced program, I would have said that the evening had left me cold and unmoved. Without his supreme technique and sheer sense of pianistic control, Pollini no longer impresses as he once does. And Pollini was always a pianist who impressed me more than he pulled at my heart strings. But something special happened in hall when Pollini — looking gaunt, slightly stooped, and frankly exhausted after the taxing Third Sonata — reemerged from the wings to play two encores: Chopin’s Third Scherzo and the First Ballade. In part, by picking such substantial encores, it seemed like he was showing that he still could do this — that he had enough left in the tank to perform two major works that most pianists would have given pride of place to on their announced programs. Though, to be fair, in his 2002 Boston recital, Pollini offered not two but five Chopin encores, including the G-minor Ballade — and didn’t seem to break a sweat.

But it was last night’s G-minor Ballade that touched me more than his 2002 version, which bowled me over back then with its authoritative command. This time, Pollini’s playing was slack and fallible, but it had a noble sense of struggle — a quality that Pollini in his prime never betrayed — that was emotional and immensely moving: as if Pollini was at once stoking old fires and raging against the dying of the light.

Nocturnes, Op. 27, Nos. 1-2
Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Major, Op. 47
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
Berceuse, Op. 57 in D-flat Major
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Nocturnes, Op. 55, Nos. 1-2
Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58

Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp minor, Op. 39
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.