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At Pollini Recital, a Chill in the Air

By Tom Huizenga
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page C02

Over the years a reputation has attached itself to pianist Maurizio Pollini -- that of a technically brilliant yet emotionally distant player. Pollini confirmed that reputation at his Wednesday night recital of music by Beethoven and Chopin before a packed house at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Pollini is the son of an architect, and one could argue that something of his father's craft shines in his own art. He constructs his performances with the crystalline transparency of artful blueprint, but a blueprint can't convey the sweep and romance of the real building. Too often during Pollini's recital one was awestruck by the design, but the heart of the music was missing.

Maurizio Pollini's program was wonderfully crafted but emotionally distant. (Phillippe Gontier)

Pollini has left little room for passion in Chopin's Op. 32 Nocturnes, which opened the second half of the concert. Above all, these intimate pieces should sing with the bel canto elegance of a Bellini aria. Chopin's Ballade No. 3 met a similar, overly measured approach.

Instead, Pollini's mastery is pushing out from a piano sounds you thought could never live inside a box of wood and steel. His color palette and shadings made Chopin's Sonata No. 2 a performance in which Pollini lived up to his standing as of one of today's most sophisticated musicians. In the famous "Funeral March" movement, his control over dynamic levels between the grim procession and the sweetly sung second theme was so finely detailed you might have thought a recording engineer was stuffed inside his Steinway. Pollini's rounded, dark chocolate tones from the low end of his piano were matchless.

The opening half of the evening was Beethoven. Pollini began with the Sonata No. 24. It flies by in less than 10 minutes, and it seemed Pollini was intent on finishing up as quickly as possible. He was too business-like, power-walking through the opening Adagio, then missing the humor in the short finale, which could serve as a soundtrack for the Keystone Kops.

Pollini followed with the well-known "Appassionata," Sonata No. 23. It's at the heart of Beethoven's heroic style, but in Pollini's hands the valor was muted. The four-note theme in the first movement (that would later appear at the start of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) sounded less like an ominous knock on the door and more like polite punctuation marks. Pianists are often tempted to play Beethoven's final movement at superhuman speeds, and Pollini was no exception. But he was supremely, thrillingly in control, leaving some in the audience gasping.

In this recital, sponsored by WPAS, we heard Pollini's brain in rare form. Now we just need to hear more from his heart.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company