One participant in this recital was making a debut appearance in London and it was not the pianist. Maurizio Pollini has been a regular visitor to the city for the best part of 40 years, but his new piano – a Steinway concert grand modified by the Italian piano technician Angelo Fabbrini – was making the journey for the first time.

This was the opening event of the “Pollini Project” in London. Originally conceived back in 1995 for Salzburg, the concept has been reformulated for various cities since, but each time Pollini devises a series of recital programmes that offer an overview – dare one say summation? – of his artistry. In London, this means five recitals in the next five months, spanning 250 years of the piano repertoire.

He began on Friday with Bach, not a composer Pollini has played here often. His ability to distil the intellectual essence of the first book of Das wohltemperierte Klavier was never in doubt, but without the recreative fire of Tatyana Nikolayeva or the varied insights of specialist Bach players such as Andras Schiff or Angela Hewitt, would he have enough to say?

The evening did not begin well. The audience was restless and Pollini could not resist humming along with the tenor entries in the fugues. The sound he drew from his Steinway-Fabbrini was strikingly lucid, but in the faster music he kept setting hasty speeds that were too rigid and left him scrambling to fit in all the notes. It was midway through the first half before he cast any kind of spell: the E flat minor Prelude sang with a chaste cantilena that could only have come from an Italian.

From there the recital aspired to a higher level. In smaller pieces, at least, the ever cool, rational Pollini showed how observing from afar might bring simple but penetrating insights. The G minor Fugue found a barely tangible softness at its centre, the B flat major Prelude a crystalline beauty; but, while a piece such as the great B flat minor Fugue aimed for understated power, like all the longer movements it ended up plodding dogmatically to its conclusion. This first instalment of the “Pollini Project” sometimes felt more like duty than pleasure.

Royal Festival Hall, London

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