Pollini Reveals a New Side Of Beethoven -- and Himself

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

The pianist Maurizio Pollini is known as an intellectual of the keyboard. Descriptions of his playing ring variations on the themes of cerebral, cool and detached. He is depicted as a consummate technician who stands outside the music he masters: in short, the very model of a modern piano virtuoso.

But his recital at Strathmore on Wednesday night didn't seem detached at all. Indeed, there was something warm and earthy about his playing. Rather than distant perfection, it offered a kind of considered humanity. What was distinctive about it was not its coolness, but its utter originality.

Pollini thinks in phrases, not in notes. And his thinking is several steps beyond any conventional wisdom about, say, Beethoven, two of whose sonatas opened the generous program. Like most of the music on the program -- which also included Schumann's C Major Fantasy and the four Op. 33 mazurkas and B-flat minor Scherzo by Chopin -- it was hardly new terrain.

But it sounded new -- not just like a new reading of Beethoven, but like a new work entirely. It wasn't only that the music often appeared to be improvised, starting with the opening notes of the "Tempest" Sonata, which had a casually exploratory air, as if the pianist were making up his mind what to do next. It was that the phrasing was so unexpected that very familiar works sounded utterly different. If music is made up of sentences, these were translating the content into a whole new language. And yet it never felt as if the pianist were being whimsical, imposing a point of view simply for the sake of being different.

Pollini is 66, but he has been so dominant in the field for so long that he seems older. The characteristics of his playing have remained consistent. There is the incredible fluidity of line: The final movement of the "Tempest" moved at a rolling boil, the individual notes subsumed into something larger and more sinuous, as if music were being worked into a different medium. There is the juxtaposition of dynamic contrasts and ideas in startling ways, which made him an ideal interpreter of the Schumann; the quirks and turns and jogs became part of a narrative that made sense. Yet to describe these traits makes them sound predictable, when there was nothing predictable about them.

Was he perfect? Not at all. He dropped notes, startlingly; and emitted little unconscious half-cries, a kind of vocalizing that, like the grunts of tennis players, once seemed taboo and are now increasingly common. Yet he played in a way that made his technique sound perfect: The way his fingers drew music from the keys was unassailable even when technical perfection was a concept rather than a literal description. Even his piano was special -- he travels with a Fabbrini-modified Steinway D, which modulated the showy flashiness of some Steinways into a warmer, more intimate and gorgeous sound.

The intense evening was topped with effusions of Chopin, which are by way of being the pianist's home turf (and the focus of his most recent CD, which came out this month), and which he continued in three encores past the regular performance. If he was intellectual, it was in offering so much food for thought: a wealth of sensation that is only diminished by the attempt to contain it in words.

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