Maurizio Pollini, Giving His All

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2006

Maurizio Pollini used to be among the most tightly wound of great musicians -- a man who never gave interviews, avoided all public attention when he wasn't onstage, and always seemed ready to flee even as he stepped before the footlights to play the piano superlatively.

And so it was a pleasure to behold the shy but wholehearted and engaging grin with which Pollini welcomed the capacity audience at the Music Center at Strathmore on Wednesday night. He played a generous program, followed it with four encores and then moved to the Strathmore lobby to sign CDs for hundreds of exhilarated admirers who would have been happy to listen to him all night.

It is frivolous to refer to any musician as the "greatest." Artistic endeavor cannot be quantified like home runs or speed records. That said, it's hard to think of another pianist so reliably satisfying as Pollini -- so conscientious in his respect for the integrity of whatever he plays, so probing and intelligent in the planning of his interpretations, so pearly-toned and nearly note-perfect in the execution.

Indeed, Pollini accomplished something on Wednesday that I had long thought impossible: He had me absolutely engrossed in Franz Liszt's Sonata in B Minor. This vast, one-movement piece can seem the longest 35 minutes in the piano repertory -- sprawling, mawkish and fatally impressed with its own self-importance. Pollini played the sonata very quickly, in about 25 minutes, and he refused to dawdle over Liszt's more sentimental themes, keeping them, for once, in careful proportion to the whole, strengthening everything in the process.

Lesser interpreters strain to make this piece as wild-eyed and metaphysical as possible, conjuring up shadows of profundities that may or may not be there. For his part, Pollini seemed to have nothing grander in mind than to make firm, objective musical sense of it all -- to play this as a 19th-century piano sonata rather than a dreamy, soft-focus evocation of mystical transport.

Four other Liszt works ("Nuages Gris," "Unstern," "La Lugubre Gondola" No. 1 and "Richard Wagner -- Venezia," all miniatures from the composer's last years) reminded me of Elliott Carter's acute observation that Charles Ives was more often interesting than good. The harmonies are indeed daring -- "Nuages Gris" ("Grey Clouds"), in particular, sounds like a prefiguration of Arnold Schoenberg -- but the pieces still strike me as dark, drab and charmless despite their radical credentials.

The first half of the program was devoted to music by Frederic Chopin -- two pairs of nocturnes, Op. 55 and 48; the Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23; and the Polonaise in F-sharp Minor, Op. 44. Of these, only the last disappointed somewhat: The long reiterative passage in the middle can sound like so much clatter unless it is tweaked a bit. Vladimir Horowitz used to play this section as a study in dynamic contrasts -- as a long crescendo with alternations of loud and soft interspersed -- and he managed to make it work. But Pollini is too much the purist to engage in such wholesale recomposition. He gave us what Chopin wrote, with the result that this part of the Polonaise sounded mechanical and uninspired, especially when compared with the unhinged ferocity at the beginning and end of the work, and the graceful, almost Grieg-like mazurka in the middle.

Encores are considered an artist's gift to the audience, and are therefore not subject to judgment by a reviewer. Still, considering that hardly anybody left the auditorium before the lights came up, it should be mentioned that Pollini played Debussy's "Sunken Cathedral" and three further pieces by Chopin -- the so-called "Revolutionary" Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12; the Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 27, No. 2; and the last and most desolate of the composer's set of Preludes, Op. 28, No. 24 -- before he moved upstairs to greet his public.

The program was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Pollini, based in Italy, now spends a good amount of time in New York; how extraordinary if we might bring him down to the Kennedy Center or Strathmore every year.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company