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February 19, 2014 6:07 pm
This recital was dedicated to the memory of Maurizio Pollini’s close colleague, the conductor Claudio Abbado, who died in January. Looking back, it seems as though every Southbank season used to open with Pollini and Abbado performing one of Brahms’s piano concertos – or, at least, those are the concerts everybody remembers.
A lot has changed since then. Pollini is recognisably the same aristocratic, reserved pianist he was, but the spotlight he used to shine on absolute precision of note and thought has dimmed over the years. A recital by him can be a patchy affair now, as his fingers feel their way into form.
This first of his two appearances at Southbank Centre this season took an especially long time to get going. It opened with an all-Chopin first half. After a sombre performance of the final Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 45, Pollini set off into the Ballades Nos. 2 and 3 with a worryingly shaky grip on any passage that had a lot of notes. His essential nobility was there, but there was no joy or spontaneity, as if the main objective was to keep going at all costs.
The same sense of skating across the notes pervaded the opening movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, but the Scherzo suddenly found its feet and the effect was like stepping on to dry land after half an hour of faint seasickness, relieved to find solid rhythms underfoot. And from there Pollini finished the sonata in fine style, especially in a supremely understated performance of the Funeral March.
The whole of the second half was occupied by Book 1 of Debussy’s Préludes. Others have brought more character to individual pieces – a “Danse de Puck” that is cheeky, or “Minstrels” with the common touch – but the playing was consistently lit by the subtlest shadings of light, as if in a series of impressionist vignettes, and when Debussy asks for playing that sounds “distant”, somehow it really did here. It was wise, though, to go back to Chopin – the “Revolutionary” study and the Ballade No. 1 – for the encores. Here was everything that had been missing earlier, fire and imagination and accuracy, as if the Pollini of old was back with us.
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