A new piano will grace the platform of London’s Royal Festival Hall this month. Not brand new, but new to the legions of piano aficionados in London. Its defining characteristic is that it recently won the unqualified approval of Maurizio Pollini. He liked it so much that he bought it.
London has heard Pollini almost every year for the past four decades, building a relationship that, by his own reckoning, amounts to genuine warmth – in contrast to the reverential adulation accorded him in the world’s other musical capitals. But he has hitherto rented a favourite piano from Steinway’s showroom or flown in an instrument from Italian company Fabbrini.
The concert grand that now wins frequent flyer points on routes to London, New York, Paris and Tokyo is not the only new element in “The Pollini Project”, five recitals starting later this month. The pianist says he has also made “new contact” with the great piano literature that forms his programmes.
At 68, Pollini has achieved venerable status, based on his Apollonian command of a repertoire extending from Bach to Boulez. After taking a while to settle early in his career, following his first prize, aged 18, at the 1960 International Chopin Competition, Pollini has held an unwavering place among the top handful of classical pianists. He is admired above all for his technical elegance, the nobility of his expressive language, his intellectual concentration and classical finish – beauty and power in subtle harmony. But he has not consistently pleased everyone. Detractors cite an exquisite coolness that holds the music at arm’s length, overly reticent in slow music and impatient in fast.
What no one can deny, however, is the ripple of electricity in the hall in the presence of a great interpreter – especially, in Pollini’s case, when the music is Chopin or Schumann, or a Beethoven sonata.
Yet even after half a century at the highest level, he is not prepared to rest on his laurels. At this summer’s Lucerne festival, unusually, he will premiere pieces commissioned specially for him from Giacomo Manzoni, Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann, before taking them on tour – though not to London. And the “new contact, new preparation” he has made for his upcoming recitals of Bach, Beethoven and Schubert stem, he says, from a desire to avoid reheating interpretations “from a memory of previous performances. It’s a matter of renewing the relationship and the emotion, sometimes changing slightly the ideas. I don’t give so many concerts [30-40 a year], so I have time to think again about the music I play. There are always new insights.”
He has been studying the entire oeuvre of the composers he most admires. In the case of Bach, that includes the cantatas, the Passions and the Mass in B minor. The customary view of Bach, he says, is of a series of “marvellous moments amid this incredible quantity of music. But the average quality of the cantatas is extremely high. I now have a better understanding of Albert Schweitzer’s idea that Bach always used themes expressing love, joy and sorrow.
“In his cantatas, Bach wants to express what is written in the text, and that explains the variety of characters in the music: not one cantata is similar to another. That reinforces my view of Bach as an extremely expressive composer.”
But how should this influence interpretation of the preludes and fugues that make up The Well-Tempered Clavier, where the formal aspects of Bach’s keyboard writing often seem an end in themselves? Pollini says the rational aspect of Bach is always connected to an emotional reality. “The deepest and most extended fugues find Bach at his greatest. There’s nothing abstract about this music. There is always an emotion attached, but he doesn’t always declare it.”
Prepare, then, for an emotionally charged view of Bach when Pollini plays The Well-Tempered Clavier Book One on January 28. Prepare, too, for a recital of Schubert’s last three sonatas on February 26 that steers clear of mournfulness. Pollini has based his re-engagement with these pieces on a study of other late works which, he believes, do not support the doom-and-gloom view of the B flat major sonata.
In a rare accolade from one great pianist to others, Pollini says we owe our belief in the importance of the C minor and A major sonatas to Artur Schnabel and Alfred Brendel, “who both championed the Schubert that was not well known”.
Mention of Schnabel gives me an opportunity to quote his dictum that “music is always better than it can be performed”. Does Pollini concur? “What Schnabel meant was that it happens very rarely that you give a performance worthy of the composition. But think of Bruno Walter conducting the Mozart Requiem: the ideal is extremely difficult but not impossible. Even if you are unable to achieve it, it gives you a different attitude to your playing if you believe the possibility exists.”
Does the burden of public expectation sometimes get the better of him? Pollini seems bemused: his enthusiasm for performance, he says, has never been higher. “As your relationship with the music gets stronger, so does your motivation for playing it and finding different sounds. If you have the idea that you can find a colour that is better for one composer or another, even if it’s an illusion, this generates enormous pleasure.”
Pollini’s intellectual curiosity stands in contrast to his domestic contentment. He and his wife live in the stylishly furnished apartment at the heart of Milan that they have occupied for 40 years. Their son lives nearby. The simply framed designs and sketches that adorn the walls are those of his late father, a distinguished architect who instilled in Pollini a love and understanding of modernism. Even at home on a January afternoon, he dresses in sober jacket and tie.
While no one could mistake the familiar aquiline features and talon-like fingers, he seems more fragile close-up than on stage – and surprisingly restless, shifting constantly between two sofas throughout our conversation. It soon becomes obvious why: the man whose fingers famously loved the touch of a cigarette as much as the keys of a piano has recently given up smoking.
He admits he still gets nervous before a concert, but recalls an encounter with the legendary Arthur Rubinstein, “the most confident pianist you could imagine, who told me he had fear before every concert. I was surprised and reassured. Nerves are a necessary part of performance, because one of the biggest challenges that exists is to present a great piece of music in public.”
The Pollini Project is at London’s Southbank Centre, January 28-May 25, www.southbankcentre.co.uk