It makes an exceptionally neat package to have all five of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas fitted on to two CDs, and it is not surprising that both DG and Decca have simultaneously come out with these issues, the Pollini taken direct from the set which in the 1977 GramophoneAwards won the award in the Instrumental section, the Ashkenazy taken from his series of the complete sonatas, with his later digital recording of the Hammerklavier rightly preferred to his earlier one.
Comparisons are not quite what I expected. Remembering the consistent praise which has been heaped on the Pollini set, I have been alarmed just how consistently and to what a degree I have preferred the Ashkenazy versions. I always did feel that the Pollini set had a chill, steely side to it, and the overall timings of the rival set give one obvious reason why: his speeds are generally faster, and though in the first movement of the Hammerklavier the astonishing technical assurance has you on the edge of your seat with excitement, there are other times when his performances seem relentless, particularly when the CD transfer (not remixed) underlines the aggressive side of the recording. I was at first inclined to blame the recording for the absence of any dynamic marking below mezzo forte in many movements, but Pollini—in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier for example—shows that he can, when he wants, play on a whisper of half-tone. Too often I am also worried by his reluctance to play with a real legato, often jabbing at individual notes within a phrase.
All this is the obverse of what I find very sympathetic in the Ashkenazy readings. I had always counted them reliable rather than inspired, not so individual as, say, Kempff, Barenboim or Brendel, but hearing this set as a group reinforces both what dedication, thoughtfulness and natural warmth there are in the playing and what freshness and strength. As ever Ashkenazy’s favourite expressive trick is a personal agogic hesitation on salient notes, but only rarely does that sound contrived. Otherwise his preference for relatively steady speeds makes Pollini sound fitful and even nervy by comparison with fast speeds too often lurching ahead or being held back. And Ashkenazy in a movement like the Scherzo of the Hammerklavier at his less hectic speeds finds an element of fantasy missing with Pollini. Equally, in the elusive lyrical first movement of Op. 101 (a personal favourite with me) Ashkenazy’s use of rubato is far more natural, less jerky, and at a more relaxed Allegretto the music flows more easily with a far wider gradation of dynamic and tone-colour.
That is partly a question of recording quality, and the CD transfers of the analogue originals of Op. 101, and the last three sonatas, readily match the fine digital recording of the Hammerklavier, with tape hiss less often audible than with the Pollini/DG. Ashkenazy is, however plagued at times by a twangy note or two on his paino. The DG booklet—larger than the Decca—contains separate notes (unattributed) on each of the five sonatas, where Decca have a perceptive essay on all five together by Misha Donat. It is an irritating omission that DG do not provide timings of individual movements, though of course you can work them out from the digital display if your machine is so equipped.’
MAURIZIO Pollini’s public performances have been selective, and they almost invariably sell out. With his friend Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, Pollini is about to begin this Friday a five-concert cycle of all of the Beethoven concertos in Carnegie Hall, followed by solo recitals of Schubert, Chopin and Debussy in Boston, New York (Carnegie Hall again), Washington and Chicago, in that order.
By now in that pantheon of virtuoso pianists towering above the musical world, Pollini is also, as a man, one of the least known. In vain will you search for interviews and biographical details. What is known of Pollini beyond his winning of the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1960?
Pollini is shy, serious and hugely concentrated. But the 45-year-old musician, seen recently in his spacious apartment in a 15th-century palazzo within easy walking distance of Milan’s Duomo, is also affable, intellectual, at ease with himself. A little natty, a careful, subdued dresser.
A conversation with Pollini – although he speaks English, he relied on his native Italian – is an exploration of definitions. Yet the boy in him shines through: with laughter, affection, appreciation. The feet, small, dangle; the hands, unfolded, rest gently on each other. Legs crossed, hands on knees. Leaning forward, nervously intent. The whole effect is of stillness, concentration. No jokes, but much wit and more sense and sensibility.
Pollini’s language is music, so getting things right in words is a hazard: ”Oh, I said that so badly!”
Not solemn, but self-doubting. In another room the telephone rings, incessantly. His wife, Maria Elisabetta, as extroverted as Pollini is withdrawn, does the answering, chatters volubly, with charm, protectively. ”She was a pianist when I met her,” Pollini says, ”but she’s never played for me!” From time to time, one hears their 8-year-old son, Daniele, working through Bartok’s ”For Children” – when, that is, he is not erupting into the immaculate hall with a friend, bursting with energy, laughing.
Daniele will not necessarily be a pianist. That, his father says, remains to be seen. Pollini himself was given the greatest possible freedom: to be musical or to be anything else he wanted. But the milieu was right for music, the disposition innate.
”Even very young,” Pollini says, ”I remember being given records. They were the old, very heavy records. When I was 5 and had my tonsils out, the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos were my consolation. Not just Bach, but the late Beethoven sonatas, the quartets.” Concerts, too, for he remembers hearing Toscanini conduct at La Scala when he was 10: ”Though my memory is not that clear, because I was at the back of a balcony during a rehearsal.” The beginnings were no more than a ”love of music”; but the ambiente, the environs of his early life, was clearly vital in his formation.
PRACTICING IN HIS STUDIO, Pollini sounds fluent, flawless and in perpetual search of that something more that can be extracted from the written notes. Three things distinguish Pollini from his peers. The first is performance: you go to hear Horowitz or Ashkenazy as pianists; when Pollini plays, you go to hear Chopin or Beethoven. It is the music that counts, not the performer. The second is a matter of repertory. Pollini’s is vast in range, giving equal importance to the literature of the past and present. (In New York, he often gives two solo recitals, one of 19th-century Romantic music, another of contemporary music; this year, there will only be one recital, of Chopin and Debussy, after the Beethoven concertos.) The third is style. Pollini’s is elegant, clear, lucid and specifically modern.
Compared to other virtuosos, Pollini’s sound is not big, like Horowitz’s; not abrasive and pungent, like Ashkenazy’s; not refined and deliquescent, like his one-time teacher Michelangeli’s; nor imposing, like Richter’s. It is, however, unmistakable by its purity and exactness of strike and timbre. It is without overtones, yet is rarely merely bright and metallic. His touch is always of a precise sonority, whether in pianissimo or fortissimo. His musical knowledge and memory are prodigious; he can sight-read anything; he can make the piano percussive or make it sing. Given the development of the contemporary piano -all toward brilliance, superb in the upper registers and bass, but less rich in the vital middle where older pianos, especially Viennese pianos, excel – the delicacy of the Pollini sound is a feat. If anything, it is a refinement of Rubinstein’s style.
To those critics who accuse Pollini of offering a mechanical, abstracted sound (”steel fingers” and ”X-ray picture of the score” are some of their grudging compliments), the appropriate reply is that Pollini’s sound is not one sound but many. The modern piano sound is unromantic, deliberately understated, and Pollini can produce a sound that is distant, self-aware, almost disembodied. The modern sound-world is less one of texture than one of rhythm and line, but Pollini’s rich, robust reading of the Brahms piano quintet hints otherwise. His several keyboard sounds, particularly the modern one, constitute musical phenomena that an older generation of pianists, more intent on their virtuoso roles than on interpretation, could hardly have conceived.
In his modernity, Pollini reflects his father, Gino, who together with another architect, Luigi Figini, was a pioneer of what we now think of as Italian ”style.” An early admirer of Gropius and Le Corbusier, the senior Pollini sought a new rationalism in architecture: clean, functional lines, new materials, humanism at home and work. It was a new esthetic. As far back as 1927, the manifesto of Gruppo 7, of which Pollini and Figini were founding members, proclaimed: ”We want, exclusively and exactly, to belong to our own time, and our art must be that which our times requires.” It could as well be said of Maurizio. His gifts were allowed to develop in their own time, at their own pace.
Pollini’s first public performance was at the age of 9; at 10, he took part in his first serious recital in Milan, a concert in honor of his teacher, Carlo Lonati. ”I was the boy just starting out,” Pollini recalls, ”and the star was Carlo Vidusso, who had studied with Lonati and who was later, when Lonati died, to become my teacher.” (His third teacher was to be, though briefly, the reclusive pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.) Hearing Pollini talk, one senses in him the ease of someone for whom culture, and cultivation, is as natural as breathing. The Pollini household encouraged intellectual curiosity, gave free rein to instinct. As his friend the composer Giacomo Manzoni says of him today, ”Maurizio is no hermit; he isn’t just tied to his piano thinking of nothing else. He is attentive to everything, to politics, to daily life. He has no particular problems; he enjoys life, food, drink; he’s an excellent friend, amiable, affectionate. A delicious man.” Whole. Someone who reads, studies chess, laughs. So much of that must have come in childhood.
Music was certainly there. His father had played the violin; his mother, Renata Mellotti, sang; her brother, the notable sculptor Fausto Melotti, a lifelong influence and friend whose paintings stand against the walls of Pollini’s studio, was enough of a pianist to have performed Debussy’s rarely heard ”Fantaisie,” for piano and orchestra.
The Pollini family cultivated artists, the house was full of visitors. The young Maurizio went to school, took piano lessons, listened and learned: ”My parents were deeply musical, I loved music from the earliest age. My musical interests weren’t specifically pianistic: if anything, I was fascinated by the orchestra.” His art, formed within the sustaining framework of his childhood home, remains an art without stress.
The Chopin Competition in 1960 was the decisive moment in Pollini’s life. In his excellent book, whose title translates to ”From Clementi to Pollini,” Piero Rattalino has described both the exigencies of that competition – in his words, ”The minimum level is high, but the maximum level can be stratospheric” – and Pollini’s triumph: ”Whoever studies the Etudes which the 18-year-old Pollini chose could see the young man from Milan was a serious candidate for either the madhouse or victory.” Pollini’s choice began with the fearsome octaves of Op. 25, No. 10. Spectacular, notes Rattalino, but not always a sure sign of the complete instrumentalist. Pollini followed with No. 11, all dramatic agility. Both were rare choices. But Pollini followed with Op. 10, No. 1, which is among the riskiest of all: ”To get 95 percent of the notes right is already like playing roulette,” wrote Rattalino. ”In Warsaw, in a minute and 40 seconds, Pollini missed only a half-dozen of the 1,203 notes for the right hand. And at the tempo indicated by Chopin, which was hard enough on the instrument of his time and is terrifying on a modern piano.” Finally came the test of interpretation: Op. 10, No. 10, ”where the difficulty lies not just in controlling the keys but the quality of the sound.”
Having triumphed that far, Pollini then performed the Mazurka Op. 50, No. 3. He was affronting a celebrated recording by Horowitz, which Rattalino calls ”a confrontation with one of the greatest pianists of our times on his own ground.” The challenge succeeded. He ended with two further Mazurkas, the Op. 33, No. 3 and the Op. 59, No. 3, both richly simple and demanding, sensuous and delicate. It seemed it was only at the very end of the competition, on the final page of the Concerto Op. 11, that ”Pollini seemed to grow conscious of the public, and like a runner who sees, though he is now all alone, the finish line, puts on a final sprint to please the crowd. Suddenly, he accelerates furiously in the long passage in double octaves; he forgets philological scruple.” ”Absolute superiority,” wrote Arthur Rubinstein, one of the judges.
Troubled years followed, as is often the case with 18-year-old supervirtuosos suddenly plunged into the ultraprofessional, entrepreneurial and highly competitive world of the modern pianist. As Pollini says: ”There was a perfectly normal tendency to ask me to play Chopin, to see me as a Chopin pianist: which didn’t displease me at all. But I made an effort to keep my options open without ever abandoning Chopin. I had to reflect on what lay ahead.”
In short, he withdrew. He gave relatively few concerts; in one year, none at all. He was reforming his mind, rethinking his metier: ”Until 18, I had a fairly normal repertory, perhaps with a particular affection for Chopin. After the competition, I sought to extend my interests in contemporary music as well as working up Beethoven, Brahms and other major 19th-century composers.” It sounds simple; the process, for a man still very young and with a huge ready-made reputation, was probably painful. To do what had to be done required courage.
Part of the remaking of his musical mind was the six months or so he spent studying with the mercurial Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Says Pollini: ”Lonati was a splendid teacher. He gave me all the basic technique. He also let me play; he was flexible. When he saw I was enthusiastic for music, he let me loose on the major works in the repertory; he wasn’t one of those perfectionists who won’t let you go on until you’ve mastered a text; he gave me my head; he didn’t kill my intellectual curiosity. Vidusso was a virtuoso himself: he’d withdrawn from concertizing to teach and it was he who prepared me for Warsaw. From Michelangeli, I learned some very fine things: unfortunately, my work with him, though valuable, was also very brief.”
L IFE FOR THE MOD-ern pianist is not easy.
The first generations, after all, were inventing an instrument, constantly expanding its capacities. The great ones were composers as well as performers, a temptation Pollini has never felt (he claims never even to have improvised). But now, the piano has been so developed as an instrument that many performers feel limited to interpretation and reinterpretation. A part of Pollini does just that with the classical literature; another part of him is restlessly innovative, in constant search of new texts and new sounds.
Pollini agrees that ”experience brings one to a different vision of what one plays.” What one plays, not how. Hence, for instance, Pollini’s latter-day fascination with the late Liszt and Debussy. ”As one’s musical knowledge increases,” he says, ”the increase becomes enrichment. Still, it is important to retain other things from one’s beginnings: enthusiasm, an openness toward the new, for that is the point of departure.” As Pollini points out, the musical Musee imaginaire, to borrow an image from Malraux, is limited: ”In music, our attention is focused on a very limited period. True, those 200 or so years are incredibly rich in masterpieces, but I fear we lose much by not going beyond them to the present and also the remoter past.”
”No one forced Pollini to work on Boulez, Schoenberg, Stockhausen,” his friend Manzoni says. ”He has done so out of conviction, intellectual curiosity and an instinctive understanding. Also, one of his great qualities is his humility: he works on new music without prejudice or self-importance. He seeks to understand each composer; he deals with each as he deals with Beethoven.”
The problems of new music are obvious: impresarios and public alike are reluctant to accept new compositions; to add them to one’s repertory is a feat both intellectual and technical. Pollini will not be led into generalizations: ”You can only talk of the difficulties of a specific composer; each poses entirely different problems.”
It is often said that new music is too intellectual, too mathematical, insufficiently affective. But as Pollini argues, there were very strictly organized compositions in the past – those of Bach, for one. Admittedly, some, but not all, new music is, as he puts it, ”elaborated in a very difficult and dense manner. But it is equally difficult to follow the language of a Beethoven quartet.” It is characteristic of the man to answer the emotional argument by citing Schoenberg, who was despairingly bitter at being considered an intellectual and not an expressive composer: ”In my personal experience,” says Pollini, to whom goes the credit for amalgamating Schoenberg’s piano pieces into the contemporary repertory, ”Schoenberg is one of the most expressive composers in all history.”
Pierre Boulez’s Second Sonata, one of the architectonic marvels of postwar music, which Pollini has recorded and has played many times, presents particular performance difficulties, which Pollini analyzes superbly: ”First, there is a huge complexity of texture. It is in three- or four-part counterpoint from beginning to end; it is the performer’s task to bring out each of these melodic lines within a highly compact structure. It is sometimes nearly impossible to convey that a given note belongs to a specific voice.
”Secondly, Boulez himself says that he set out to create distinct sections of clarity and obscurity, moments in which the various strands of the counterpoint are more in evidence and less so. Third, different complex rhythms coincide as well as leaps -such as are found in Liszt -which develop and extend the piano; the whole register is used, but at the same time the writing is rigorously contrapuntal and nothing is unessential.” Pollini finds in Boulez an affinity between the late Beethoven and the apparently rigidly worked-out systems of strictly serial composers.
Asked if he had worked with Boulez on the piece, Pollini said he hadn’t while learning it. Only once, after many years of performing the work, had he met Boulez. On that occasion, he went through the text in detail with the composer. Pollini burst out laughing when he said he hadn’t played it since. ”I assure you,” he said, ”that is pure coincidence.”
At present, he is working on the late Debussy (he already has ”Images,” ”Estampes” and various ”Preludes” in his repertory). Like the late Liszt, whom he is also studying, Pollini is deeply interested in the late Debussy. These works are precursors of atonality and amazing for the times in which they were written. Debussy’s innovations were probably not immediately developed by other composers, though he may have influenced Boulez after the war. Debussy’s is a separate line of development, one with an incredible richness of detail, infinitely more complicated than his early music.
W ITH POLLINI, the talk is not all of music, but also of people, ideas, politics. For there was a time when, like most Italian intellectuals of his age, Pollini was deeply committed politically. He and Manzoni and the composer Luigi Nono and others would perform in factories and in poor districts. He still holds to the Socialist ideal, in which he sees no need for authoritarian government. As Pollini and Manzoni say, in essence, their hopes of the early 1970’s were disappointed. Manzoni calls it ”a lovely and wonderful time.” Pollini would perhaps still like to see ”what would happen if a Prague Spring were allowed to go ahead, to see what socialism could do in a developed country.”
There is no dogmatism in the man: everything is held up to the light – the moral problem posed by South Africa as much as the styles of the pianists who influenced (Continued on Page 81) him. He can draw subtle contrasts between two such remarkable pianists as Rudolf Serkin and Artur Schnabel: ”I think Serkin is the greatest Beethoven player in the world today. His depth lies in the quality of the interpretation, in its extreme rigor. Schnabel, on the other hand, had a miraculous ability to deepen every moment, every bar of the Beethoven sonatas.” His admiration for Rubinstein is also great: ”He is so remarkably natural. He has a marvelous balance, an expressiveness that is never forced; he lets the music speak, yet he shows his presence in every note. He has a perfect equilibrium between subjective and objective.”
The late Beethoven sonatas have been Pollini’s inner discipline for some years. There are those who argue that Pollini’s performance of these last five sonatas falls between two stools, between his own fidelity to his reading of the original Beethoven ”intention” and the fire and new perception that Sviatoslav Richter brought to this pinnacle of piano literature. Indeed, it is possible that like his cherished Serkin, Pollini is still too reverential and scholastic with his Beethoven. The one thing that is clear is that in Pollini, the rethinking process is constant. His Beethoven is one in whom every note is ”essential.” Therefore to be preserved, without liberty.
Pollini is particularly fascinated by the open spaces, the distances and the pauses, in Beethoven. He believes that all those distances between extremities of register and all those pauses at crucial points have a meaning; there is nothing superfluous, nothing unessential. ”Beethoven’s ideas are so compact,” Pollini says, ”that they require a special effort of concentration from the performer. One has to see the whole of the work before beginning.” Pollini argues that the pauses in modern music, the isolated notes, as in Webern, are merely extensions of these Beethoven spaces: ”The pauses don’t break the musical charge, the line always supersedes the pauses.”
If such analysis makes Pollini seem an ivory-tower genius, the truth is that though he has time for trivia, his life is, in fact, possessed by music; music is what he breathes and talks. He is basically unanecdotal and his daily life is strikingly free from either pretension or cant. It consists of four or five hours a day of practice in a cloth-hung studio with two pianos at the back of his apartment; of reading music (”It is often important to read without playing”), and of reading, talking, eating and, that bane of performers, traveling.
He seems to take performing in his stride but he admits that, like Rubinstein, who told him that he always suffered from stage fright, the moment of going on stage always fills him with an intense emotion: before which ”I just feel the need to be alone.” (Like most performers, he eats later.) He has no particular form of preparation for a concert. The rest, he says, is unforeseeable. An ill disposition may turn good and ”there are always elements independent of one’s will. Playing solo gives you greater freedom, but a good collaboration is a fantastic experience.”
The text to him is an absolute. If it is a piece from the past, he consults the manuscript, the first editions, and he researches past performances. He is absolutely faithful to these sources, a practice which has led some critics to say that he takes tempos too literally – in most cases, too rapidly. But that is part of his fidelity.
M UCH IS LEFT FOR Pollini to do: in the near future, to record the last three Schubert sonatas and more Beethoven. Further on, possibly conducting and, Manzoni hopes, finally writing a book on interpretation.
Pollini tells a story of the late conductor Karl Bohm and himself rehearsing Beethoven’s ”Emperor” Concerto. They had been through the first movement twice. Pollini felt the need to go through it a third time. Bohm didn’t want to. ”Aber di Stimmung ist so schwer,” protested Bohm -”The feeling is so intense, so difficult.” That they did play it again, and that Pollini will do so again and again, says it all.
Maurizio Pollini: a life in music
It was 50 years ago that the then 18-year-old Maurizio Pollini won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Held once every five years, the competition’s stature is evidenced not only by its winners – Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman followed Pollini – but by its losers: both Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mitsuko Uchida were runners-up. In 1960 Pollini was the youngest of the 89 entrants. The judges included Nadia Boulanger and chair Artur Rubinstein, who declared: “that boy plays better than any of us jurors.” Pollini’s triumph confirmed the scale of his emerging talent, but it was his response to winning that proved to be one of the defining facets of his subsequent career. It is has become part of the Pollini myth that after his victory he became something of a recluse, prone to nerves and cancellations, who didn’t properly re-emerge until the late 1960s, by which time his youthful verve and engagement had been transformed into a dauntingly icy professionalism.
Pollini’s restrained on-stage demeanour and dapperly conservative off-stage appearance indeed promote a strong sense of detached accomplishment. But he is by no means a “musical adding machine”, as he was once described. His distinguished silver hair, aquiline profile and line in smart grey suits may have prompted the observation that he resembled a typical Fiat factory executive, but in reality his political history reveals him as closer to a typical Fiat factory union organiser. He continually fishes in the pockets of those expensive jackets for an apparently never-ending supply of cigarettes, smoking no more than a quarter before stubbing one out and lighting another. Speaking in his London hotel suite – the connecting suite used purely for his practice mini-grand piano – he is in fact sociable, relaxed and eager to trade industry news and word of his fellow travellers on the global merry-go-round of top-level classical music.
As for the aftermath of Warsaw, he acknowledges that “the natural thing for me to have done having won was to play concert after concert after concert. It’s true that I wasn’t willing to become a Chopin specialist, but the idea that I was a recluse really has been overstated. I was very young and thought I needed more time to develop my musical interests and a bigger repertoire. I wanted to explore other arts and other things. So I stayed away from concerts for about a year and a half, and when I returned I didn’t take on too many. But I always enjoyed performing and I made my debut in London in 1963. By the end of the 60s my performance schedule had extended itself to a more normal rhythm. As for my progression as a performer, I’ll leave it to others to say, but some development and change at that stage of your career is hardly unusual.”
Pollini’s technical mastery is undisputed, but the idea that he is too emotionally detached, that he “interrogates” music as opposed to conducting a “sympathetic interpretation”, has become a commonplace of discussion about his work. One of his greatest champions was Edward Said, who presented the other side of the coin. Said praised Pollini for his commitment to music and excluded him from the generality of “most pianists”, who, Said claimed, are like “most politicians” in that they “seem merely to wish to remain in power”. Instead, with Pollini his “technique allows you to forget technique . . . what comes through in all Pollini’s performances is an approach to the music – a direct approach, aristocratically clear, powerfully and generously articulated.” Said went on to say that “even when Pollini doesn’t achieve this effect – and many have remarked on his occasional glassy, tense, and hence repellent perfection – the expectation that it will occur in another of his recitals remains vivid. This is because for the listener there is a sense of a career unfolding in time. And Pollini’s career communicates a feeling of growth, purpose and form.”
It is a career that has encompassed radical left-wing politics and been fired by a punishing perfectionism (for which London audiences ought to be grateful, in that it was Pollini’s threat to cancel a 1983 concert at the Barbican because of its notoriously poor acoustics that began the process of improving the hall’s sound). Most of all, it has combined the great peaks of the classical and romantic piano repertoires with a commitment to new music. Alfred Brendel, one of the few pianists who can write from an equally elevated position, explains that great work “continuously needs to be brought to life, and to relate to our own time. If handled rightly, the result should be far removed from musical consumerism and mental sloth. Ideally, the performer should champion the neglected and the new along with established masterworks, and by no means exclude famous pieces just because they are famous. In his programmes, Maurizio Pollini has admirably stayed this course.”
There will be opportunities to assess a very large part of Pollini’s career in London this year as he embarks on a five-concert Royal Festival Hall season spread over five months that is both a history of piano music and a statement of his relationship to it. Starting with a Bach concert on 28 January, he will then play the late sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert before a “French” programme of Chopin, Debussy and Boulez and a concluding concert in May featuring Schumann, Liszt and Stockhausen. “I have played a recital in London more or less every year throughout my career and have a very strong relationship with the London public,” he explains. “I like their way of listening and their deep interest in music, and so I thought it was possible to do something larger and different. I have played these works many times and they are all extraordinarily important works for the piano. Put together, they form something of a line, something of a story of piano music. But it is not a rigorous or strict line. They are closely connected to me and my overall musical interests, so it is also my personal line and, in a way, my personal story.”
Pollini was born in Milan in 1942. His father, Gino Pollini, was a well-known architect – “one of the first people in Italy to introduce modern architecture in the 1930s” – who was also a keen amateur musician. His mother had trained as a pianist and singer, and his uncle, Fausto Melotti, was a leading Italian modernist sculptor. “I grew up in a house with art and artists. Old works and modern works co-existed together as part of life. It went without saying.”
His musical talent was recognised early and he was sent to a piano teacher at the age of six. Later he remembers being given a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos when he had his tonsils removed and attending a Toscanini rehearsal at La Scala. By the age of 15 his Milan recital of Chopin’s Etudes had been well reviewed in the Italian press. Despite attending the Milan conservatoire, Pollini carried on with normal school studies alongside music. “I was interested in many things, and it wasn’t until I was relatively old that I worked purely on the piano. It was not that I wasn’t dedicated to the music, which I was, it was just that I wasn’t really thinking that much about my future. Of course, in hindsight, there was never any other life that I realistically could have taken.”
Despite his protestations, his immediate post-Warsaw career was not plain sailing. An American tour was postponed, and his 1963 London debut, playing Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the LSO under Colin Davis, was dismissed as “rushed” by the Times, which claimed that “his only concern seemed to be getting the notes over and done with”.
Pollini studied briefly with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and, as his repertoire developed back into the classical and romantic canon, he also began a deep engagement with the music of his own time. In the 60s he started his relationship with the music of both Stockhausen and Boulez, whose second piano sonata has become one of his signature pieces – he will play it at his April concert at the Royal Festival Hall. “It is a piece of music that has everything. A masterpiece. The so-called emotional aspect that is so valued in the great works of the past is very evident here. It should be appreciated and understood by the general public far better than it is.”
He says that while Stockhausen and Boulez are “completely established, they are still not that often performed. For me they are wonderful and classic pieces of the repertoire. We now see Stravinsky and Debussy and Ravel and Bartok as part of the normal repertoire. I would add Berg to that list and say that Schoenberg and Webern are almost on it. The great masters of the second half of the 20th century – Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, Ligeti – still appear to be a little further away from the general public as everyday music for a normal concert.”
Pollini’s relationship with the Marxist avant garde composer Luigi Nono, whom he first encountered in the mid-60s, has been one of the most important of his career. “I became a great enthusiast for his music and asked him to compose something for the piano. That took quite a lot of courage because it seemed that the piano was completely outside of his interests at that time.” Nono, who had already written work condemning American involvement in Vietnam, composed two pieces for Pollini, including one for piano, voice and tapes, that commemorated a murdered Chilean revolutionary.
And Pollini’s involvement in new music went hand in hand with the polarised politics of the time. He, Nono and their friend, the conductor Claudio Abbado (under Abbado’s baton Pollini has since gone on to play with some of the great orchestras of the world), performed radical work all over Italy and encouraged new audiences to attend traditional concert halls, “The starting point was that art should be for everybody,” Pollini says. “At La Scala there was someone who had contact with the local factory councils, which were not trade unions but directly run by workers. So with Abbado at La Scala we gave a cycle of concerts for students and workers. As an attempt to build a new public it was very positive and interesting, but the ideas were not really taken forward or developed further.”
Pollini married in 1968 and has one son. Although on the radical left in the 1970s, he says he had no time for that decade’s violent revolutionaries in Italy. “The centre and right parties were totally corrupt, but the so-called revolutionary left had a terrible influence and actually allowed the right to get more power. There were bombs and murders. There is a lot of suspicion to this day as to right-wing conspiracies and who actually did what and who knew what. But in the end these ‘awful people of the left’ proved very useful for the right.”
He remains a man of the left and despairs of Silvio Berlusconi’s continuing grip on power. “It is a different situation to the 70s, but it is still a terrible state of affairs. Berlusconi is taking one step after another to become a dictator in passing laws which are in conflict with democracy. What is happening is a farce and in one sense it is obviously comical and embarrassing, but it is also very dangerous, and the left seems too weak to provide effective opposition. And in artistic terms the situation is deplorable. Obviously there is a financial crisis, but this government is actually against culture, and their cuts are making life for musical institutions almost impossible, which is an unnecessary disaster.”
His strong belief in the social benefits of art remains undimmed. “I think great art has entirely progressive aspects within it, elements that are somehow outside the detail of the text or even the political opinions of the person who made it. Art itself, if it is really great, has a progressive aspect that is needed by a society, even if it seems absolutely useless in strictly practical terms. In a way art is a little like the dreams of a society. They seem to contribute little, but sleeping and dreaming are vitally important in that a human couldn’t live without them, in the same way a society cannot live without art.”
He says he is in some ways disappointed that work he has been championing since the mid-60s has yet to break through to general acceptance. “It was always a difficult task. In the 1970s there was a movement that could well have propelled this music more into the mainstream. If that movement had succeeded then you wouldn’t have to make any special case to play Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke. But somehow it didn’t happen, and since then there has been a tendency not to push forward the contemporary boundaries of the core repertoire. And so we have to go on making the case.”
And whether the work is old or comparatively new, he says the real interest comes from the fact that it is composed in “a strong and vibrant new language, which Chopin’s and Beethoven’s were in their time, just as Boulez’s and Nono’s have been in theirs. And contemporary music has within it both a link to the past, from the older music it developed out of, and, if it is of the highest quality, a life of its own in which it matures and develops over time.”
His relationship with the music to be played in his London season goes back 40 or 50 years. “And over that time it becomes better and more rewarding. It doesn’t matter if you play these pieces all the time, or go for years without playing them at all, which often happens to me. They are always there in your mind. You think about them and refer to them all the time. You also entertain the hope, although it is sometimes an illusion, that you will understand them a little better over time. These are relationships that go on forever, and so long as you keep playing the piano they will never be concluded.”
Legende Maurizio Pollini
Slechts achttien lentes jong won de Italiaan Maurizio Pollini het Chopin Concours van 1960. ‘Dat joch speelt beter piano dan wij’, verzuchtte de juryvoorzitter Arthur Rubinstein destijds. De jongen groeide uit tot een legende, wiens koele helderheid zowel bewonderd als verguisd wordt. Deutsche Grammophon viert zijn vijfenzeventigste verjaardag met een monumentale verzamelbox.
‘Er kleven de nodige gevaren aan vroege roem’
Vijfenzeventig werd hij deze maand, de Italiaanse aristocraat van het klavier. Gedurende zijn loopbaan hangt er een onaantastbaar aura om Maurizio Pollini. Dat toonde zich al wanneer hij op zijn achttiende het Chopin Concours wint. De motoriek doet op de beelden uit 1960 onhandig aan, althans als het aankomt op de plichtplegingen rond de prijsuitreiking. Eenmaal achter de piano straalt de jongeling een verbazend krachtige autoriteit uit. ‘Dat joch speelt beter dan wij’, verzucht juryvoorzitter Arthur
Toch voelt de jonge Pollini dat de tijd nog niet rijp voor hem is. Hij trekt zich enkele jaren vrijwel terug uit de schijnwerpers om in de leer te gaan bij onder andere Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. ‘De jury van het Chopin Concours was meer dan aardig’, zegt
Pollini later. ‘Maar het was een heftige ervaring voor een tiener zoals ik. Er kleven gevaren aan vroege roem. Enerzijds moet je je stem laten horen, anderzijds moet je je natuurlijk ontwikkelen – evolueren – zonder haast en zonder je gevoel voor verwondering te verliezen.’ Want het zijn juist de jeugdjaren, vindt de pianist, waarin de musicus zich onbevangen grote werken kan eigen maken. ‘De études van Chopin, waarmee ik voor het eerst het podium betrad op mijn veertiende, moet je vroeg bestuderen, want dan voel je je nog vrij om de poëzie te zoeken in muziek die van buiten slechts uit techniek lijkt te bestaan. Op oudere leeftijd groeit ook de onzekerheid. Dat was voor mij de reden om na de winst in Warschau in retraite te gaan. Ik wilde een basis leggen voor de zware jaren die nog zouden komen.’
Pollini lijkt op zijn vader: hij benadert muziek als een architect
Maurizio Pollini kwam in januari 1942 ter wereld in een kunstenaarsmilieu. Zijn vader was een architect, die moderne gebouwen ontwierp, maar groot ontzag koesterde voor de oude vormen. ‘Traditie en vernieuwing leefden samen in ons huis.’ Van hem erfde Pollini ongetwijfeld de neiging om met evenveel liefde het nieuwe en het oude te omarmen. De pianist speelt muziek van Bach tot Boulez. Zijn moeder was zangeres. Zijn oom een befaamd beeldhouwer. In de Milanese woning van de Pollini’s was het een komen en gaan van kunstenaars. De jonge Maurizio zoog alles op. Zijn muzikale talent kwam al vroeg aan de oppervlakte. Toen op zijn vijfde zijn amandelen werden geknipt, troostte Pollini zich niet met het eten van ijs, maar met het luisteren naar Bachs Brandenburgse Concerten en de late Pianosonates van Beethoven. De grote pianisten bezochten Milaan in de veertiger en vijftiger jaren van de vorige eeuw. De kleine Maurizio was er getuige van. ‘Ik heb veel mooie herinneringen aan de Chopin-vertolkingen van Rubinstein en aan Wilhelm Kempff, een dichter op de piano, iemand met een Goethiaanse kijk op Beethoven: een mengsel van schoonheid en wijsheid.’
Bij terugkeer van zijn retraite na het Chopin Concours bouwde Pollini langzaam zijn concertpraktijk uit. Zo’n anderhalf jaar van strenge lessen bij Michelangeli hadden een bevlogen jongeling omgevormd tot een pianist die de noten in een ijzeren greep leek te houden. Hij wilde de partituur voor zichzelf laten spreken. De aanpak riep het beeld op van zijn vader: Pollini benaderde muziek als een architect. ‘Zijn voordracht heeft iets zakelijks’, schreef een recensent, ‘maar het verhaal dat hij vertelt, kent wel gloed en dramatiek.’
Pollini rekende af met de sfeer van sentimentaliteit die rondom de muziek – met name die van zijn geliefde Chopin – werd opgetrokken. ‘Bij Pollini blijft de parfumfles gesloten, zijn aanslag heeft een direct karakter’, schreef de ene criticus. ‘Hij laat de muziek verschijnen alsof hij haar uit graniet beitelt’, vond een andere.
‘Ik speel alleen stukken waarmee ik een blijvende band wil’
Sommigen hadden bedenkingen bij die aanpak. Zijn vakgenoot Sviatoslav Richter noemde Pollini’s stijl ‘krachtig, zonder twijfel zelfs heldhaftig’, maar verweet hem tegelijkertijd een gebrek aan warmte. Anderen waren minder omzichtig en spraken van ‘een röntgenfoto van de partituur’ en ‘Chopin in metaal gegoten’. Anderen prezen daarentegen Pollini’s ‘fenomenale precisie, die elke noot tastbaar het juiste gewicht en de juiste kleur gaf’.
Hij was een kind van een intellectuele tijd die ook een geestverwant als Alfred Brendel voortbracht. ‘Het is waar’, zegt Pollini, ‘dat ik niet op mijn gemak ben als het gaat om neo-romantische muziek. Maar het is zeker niet waar dat ik een hekel heb aan Rachmaninov. Zoals vele jonge pianisten werd ik betoverd door Horowitz’ uitvoering van diens Derde Pianoconcert, maar ik luister er liever naar, dan dat ik het zelf speel.’
De Italiaan heeft in de afgelopen zes decennia zijn uiteenlopende repertoire zorgvuldig gekozen. ‘Ik kies alleen stukken waarmee ik een blijvende band wil aangaan, waarvan ik een leven lang nooit genoeg zal kunnen krijgen. Je kunt nooit al het pianorepertoire spelen, dat is een oceaan waarin je verdrinkt. Iedereen zal daaruit moet kiezen wat hem of haar het beste ligt.’
Legende Vladimir Ashkenazy
De Rus Vladimir Ashkenazy legde een lange weg af om uit te groeien tot een van de opmerkelijkste pianisten en dirigenten van onze tijd. Dit jaar werd hij tachtig. ‘Muziek is onlosmakelijk verbonden met ons leven.’
Iedereen huilde om Stalin. ‘Onze vader is dood’
Met het Eerste Pianoconcert van Tsjaikovski koestert Vladimir Ashkenazy een haat-liefdeverhouding. Of misschien heeft hij er wel gewoon een hekel aan, ontbreekt het hem aan warme gevoelens. Sommige muziek ligt je nu eenmaal niet. Als dirigent doet hij het graag hoor, zolang hij maar niet achter de vleugel hoeft te zitten. De Tsjaikovski symboliseert het verlies van de onschuld voor hem. Hij groeide op in de dictatuur van de Sovjet-Unie, maar zijn muzikale talent zorgde ervoor dat hij van de uitwassen niet veel merkte. Gekoesterd werden de paradepaardjes, die konden laten zien dat het communisme superieur was aan andere ideologie: atleten, wetenschappers, kunstenaars.
En musici in het bijzonder. Zelfs de bloeddorstige Jozef Stalin had ontzag voor hen. Toen ze hem dood in zijn datsja vonden, lag daar nog een pianoconcert van Mozart op de draaitafel. Ashkenazy was vijftien tijdens de begrafenis van de grote Sovjet-leider. ‘Ik liep door Moskou. Er reden geen metro’s. De winkels waren dicht. En iedereen huilde. “Onze vader is dood. Wat moeten we nu”, riepen ze. Al die gehersenspoelde mensen. Ik bezocht mijn Armeense pianolerares. Gedurende de les fluisterde ze in mijn oor: “Het leven zal nu beter worden.” Ik schrok. Het was angstaanjagend om naast iemand te zitten die dat durfde te zeggen.’
‘Je moet studeren als een slaaf om het te kunnen’
In de jaren erna brak Ashkenazy door. Op zijn zeventiende werd hij tweede in het prestigieuze Chopin Concours in Warschau. Hij hoefde alleen een Pool, de vijf jaar oudere Adam Harasiewicz, boven zich te dulden. Een jaar later won hij de Koningin Elisabeth Wedstrijd in Brussel. Normaal gesproken mochten zulke winnaars vervolgens aan hun concertcarrière gaan werken.
Maar er deed zich een onverwachte wending voor. Bulkend van het muzikale zelfvertrouwen had de Sovjet-Unie een eigen pianoconcours opgezet. In die wedstrijd moesten de communistische musici hun tegenstanders verpletteren. Maar het Tsjaikovski Concours werd – onder veel tumult – gewonnen door Ruslands kapitalistische aartsvijand, Amerika. De slungelachtige Van Cliburn werd door het publiek in de armen gesloten. En hem niet de eerste prijs toekennen, zou een blamage betekenen. Toch moest er nog een telefoontje naar Sovjet-leider Chroetsjov aan te pas komen, voor het zover was. Vier jaar later, met de tweede editie voor de deur, moest er hoe dan ook een Sovjet-winnaar komen. De schande van 1958 diende te worden uitgewist. Alle grote talenten – ook de 24-jarige Ashkenazy – werden op het matje geroepen bij de minister van Cultuur. ‘Zij vond dat we ons moesten voorbereiden voor de wedstrijd door het Eerste Pianoconcert van Tsjaikovski te studeren’, herinnerde Ashkenazy zich. ‘Ik durfde tegen te werpen dat het werk me niet zo goed lag. Een krankzinnige opmerking. Want ze wist niets van muziek. Ze begreep niet dat ik bedoelde dat de muziek technisch erg moeilijk was voor een pianist met zulke kleine handen. Mij werd te verstaan gegeven dat niet meedoen het einde van mijn loopbaan als pianist zou betekenen. Dus ik vertrok, oefende en won.’
Hij deelde de eerste prijs met de Brit John Ogdon. Maar tussen Ashkenazy en Tsjaikovski’s Eerste Pianoconcert kwam het nooit meer helemaal goed. ‘Het vraagt zoveel virtuositeit. Al die octaven. Zoveel pijn! Je moet studeren als een slaaf om het te kunnen volbrengen.’
‘Welkom in de meest vrije natie ter wereld’
Zijn vader was een concertpianist, maar vreemd genoeg gaf die hem nooit les. Het was zijn moeder die hem op zijn zesde onder haar hoede nam. Ze hadden een moeilijke positie in de communistische heilstaat, want ze behoorden tot minderheden waarnaar met wantrouwen naar gekeken werd onder Stalin: vader Ashkenazy – de naam zegt het al – was Joods en zijn moeder mocht dan wel volbloed Russisch zijn, ze behoorde ook de oosters-orthodoxe kerk, voor het atheïstische communisme ook een vijand.
Als achtjarige maakte Vladimir Ashkenazy zijn debuut in Moskou. Hij ging daar naar de muziekschool en op zijn zeventiende – het jaar dat hij zich in Warschau voor het eerst aan de wereld liet zien – mocht hij naar het conservatorium. Hij kreeg Lev Oborin als leraar, de eerste winnaar van het Chopin Concours in 1927. Een groot musicus voor wie Prokofjev en Katsjatoerjan muziek schreven. Hij sprak tot de verbeelding van deze componisten. ‘Toen ik aan mijn Pianoconcert werkte’, schreef Katsjatoerjan, ‘droomde ik dat Oborin het zou spelen.’
In 1961 trouwde Ashkenazy met de IJslandse pianostudente Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir, die hij op het conservatorium had leren kennen. Zij moest haar geboortegrond afzweren. Toen ze de Sovjet-nationaliteit kreeg, feliciteerde de ambtenaar haar met de woorden: ‘U bent nu burger van de meest vrije natie ter wereld.’
In die jaren leerde Ashkenazy de ware aard van de ‘heilstaat’ kennen. Geheime dienst KGB probeerde hem te rekruteren als informant. Lokale comités lieten hem en zijn vrouw om de haverklap opdraven, op verdenking van neigingen tot bourgeoisie, ofwel misdaden tegen het communisme. Het wantrouwen en de willekeur regeerden in de Sovjet-Unie. Componist Sjostakovitsj kon de ene dag opgepakt worden door een ondervrager, die van hem eiste dat hij na het weekend namen van verraders van de arbeidersklasse zou noemen, om dan na slapeloze nachten, op maandag te horen dat de ondervrager zelf was opgepakt. ‘Alle gedoe maakte ons paranoïde’, zei Ashkenazy.
Tijdens zijn reis naar Brussel in 1956 ontdekte Ashkenazy ook hoeveel muziek hij nog niet kende. ‘We waren een eiland in de wereld. We wisten niets van westerse muziek. Ik kwam terug uit Brussel met koffers partituren, werken van Ravel en Debussy. Plotseling werd ik het middelpunt in Moskou van musici die deze zeldzame bladmuziek wilden bestuderen. Ik schaamde me om Rus te zijn. Het Boston Symphony Orchestra gaf een concert in Moskou. Het speelde het Russische volklied. Voordat ik de Amerikanen had gehoord, dacht ik dat onze orkesten mooi speelden. Daarna wist ik wel beter. De bezoekers gaven ons les in schoonheid.’
Hij kan je laten voelen dat elke noot een wonder is
Langzaam begon Ashkenazy zich een gevangene te voelen, weliswaar in een gouden kooi, maar toch. Een jaar na zijn overwinning in Moskou vroegen de pianist en zijn vrouw asiel na een optreden in Londen politiek asiel aan. ‘Ik was zesentwintig, en had een kans die ik misschien nooit meer zou krijgen. Velen in de Sovjet-Unie moesten de grauwe werkelijkheid aanvaarden. Zij zouden nooit in de gelegenheid komen om een andere keus te maken. Als ik niet vertrokken zou zijn, weet ik niet of ik het had gered. Die voortdurende compromissen. En het feit dat mijn vrouw IJslandse was, werkte ook niet mee. De buitenlanders waren immers vertegenwoordigers van de westerse decadentie in de ogen van het regime. Zij waren de vijand.’
In het westen kon Ashkenazy uitgroeien tot een van de grote pianisten, die de Russische traditie belichaamde. Zijn spel is helder en doordringend. Er zit zowel hart als verstand in – het is intellectueel zonder kil te worden, emotie is nooit ver weg. Hetzelfde geldt voor zijn werk als dirigent, waarmee hij begin jaren zeventig begon. Hij kan nieuwe elan halen uit orkesten in repertoire dat ze al jaren kennen. Hij doet dat niet door verhalen, maar door een duidelijke slag en een niet aflatende liefde voor de muziek zelf. ‘We kunnen niet zonder. Zij is onlosmakelijk verbonden met ons leven’, vindt Ashkenazy. ‘Muziek blijft een mysterie.’ Hij is in staat zijn orkesten te laten voelen dat elke noot een wonder op zich is.
Uiteindelijk maakt die eigenschap Ashkenazy – of hij nu dirigeert of speelt – tot een van de grote musici van zijn tijd.