Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich are often presented as the yin and yang of brilliant pianism: he, the intellectual; she, the instinctive. In real life, of course, no dichotomy is so straightforward. But the comparison lingered in mind on Tuesday night. A few months after Argerich, freewheeling and unorthodox, received the Kennedy Center Honor, it was Pollini’s turn to take the Concert Hall stage on the Fortas chamber series, moving out with small, brisk, tight steps as if his tailcoat were a corset, the image of containment.
The recital focused entirely on Chopin, offered in generous and familiar helpings, but transformed through the autumnal gaze of a 75-year-old pianist who seems, in person, more venerable even than his years. He played nothing too unusual, and nothing too easy, and refuted stereotypes as he performed: He was neither unemotional nor technically perfect. What Pollini conjures up is the appearance of technical perfection, and the shape of emotion. The Concert Hall was packed, and — rarely for this venue — almost no one left when the concert was over until the last note of the last (the second) encore.
Pollini offers music on a micro level, focusing on individual moments in a continually evolving whole. The two Op. 27 nocturnes emerged in a warm impasto of sound that enveloped the familiar singing lines in a golden fog, as if he were feeling his way along the keyboard and only gradually making out familiar contours in something that initially appeared unrecognizable. But then came the third Ballade, in A-flat, washing away the density in long, crystalline runs of notes.
The contrast between texture and clarity was a unifying theme of the evening, from the Op. 57 Berceuse, opening with a straightforwardness that fleetingly evoked Satie’s “Gymnopedies,” to the subtle contrasts of the fourth Ballade, dappled with light and shade.
As for emotion, I think the reason people call Pollini unemotional is that he plays without pathos, and pathos is so often a part of the performance of 19th-century music that we tend to remark, or misunderstand, its absence. The B-minor scherzo that finished the program’s first half offered tangles of feeling seen from a great height: It was up to the listener to undergo them, not the performer.
In the second half of the program, which Pollini will perform in New York next week, the music left the haze and moved into increasing clarity. The Op. 55 nocturnes sang more firmly, and the third sonata, the capstone of the program, was firm and vital, skipped notes or no. Then the pianist journeyed twice more out to the keyboard for encores, finishing with the G-minor ballade, which sealed what felt like a valedictory evening — a kind of nostalgia that classical music fans understand, and prize, from their lionized soloists.