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Music review: Pianist Maurizio Pollini at the Kennedy Center

By Joe Banno
Friday, May 14, 2010; C04

Conventional wisdom tells us that Chopin was a fine piano composer whose salon sentimentality and florid style held him back from the uppermost echelon of writers for the keyboard. That same wisdom would have it that Maurizio Pollini ranks among the greatest of contemporary pianists, but that the steely precision and cerebral cast of his technique make him something of a cold fish in romantic repertoire such as the music of Chopin.

Pollini's Washington Performing Arts Society, all-Chopin recital on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall reminded us that received notions are not always accurate ones. That scrupulously honed technique of his was certainly in evidence. The turbulent finale of the Sonata No. 3 was delivered as a blistering and relentless barrage of notes from which the yearning, central melody would defiantly emerge and be subsumed again. The play of delicacy and power, of spare figures and massed chords in the A-flat Polonaise-Fantasie was masterfully kept in balance. And in a selection of four Nocturnes, Pollini found myriad shades of color and dynamic shadings to create a sense of musical twilight.

But there was nothing chilly or objectively remote about his readings. Quite the contrary: Pollini's Chopin was as subjective as it comes. An oft-cited key to great performances of this composer's works is subtle management of rubato, that subtle hesitation and acceleration of the melodic line that enriches and enlivens the music. Most Chopin specialists use rubato to tease and seduce, to give the melodies a wistful tug and allow the sentiment to well up. Play these scores in strict rhythm, and you risk rendering them emotionally inert.

Pollini's sense of rhythmic give-and-take is actually more elastic and pronounced than what's normally heard, but he uses it to very different effect. When this pianist slows the music to a halt or barrels headlong into a phrase, one senses a very personal channeling of the composer's own sense of exploration -- a self-communing way of playing that begins to sound like Chopin, himself, improvising his musical arguments. And in the process, Pollini is able to illuminate the music's structure, and show how the composer uses melody as much as a building-block as a mood-enhancer. The C-Minor Mazurka No. 3, Op. 56, and the Largo movement of the Sonata may have been dry-eyed in Pollini's performances, but they sounded astonishingly well crafted. Pollini's Chopin is not coy, but a composer of unassailable rigor and greatness.

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