Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Maurizio Pollini; Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Maurizio Pollini; Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Article excerpt

There's a moment in the finale of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata when the frenzied piano writing turns unexpectedly jolly. The late Antony Hopkins described it as a bit of an anticlimax, 'a little too near to the traditional Gypsy Dance that appears so often in the less probable 19th-century opera'.

I'm not sure whether I agree -- but one thing I can tell you is that this is the perfect moment to tap the Uber icon on your phone if you want to be whisked away during the first burst of applause, before the pianist has had the chance to play an encore.

That's the effect Maurizio Pollini's playing has on me. The man has been sucking the life out of Beethoven piano sonatas for decades, but surely never so annoyingly as he did last week, when he opened the spring season of the Southbank Centre's International Piano Series.

The applause was thunderous, it's true, but it was a particular type of applause that you hear more often at the Southbank than anywhere else: a veteran soloist being cheered to the rafters, not for the music (I hope -- unless the audience were cloth-eared morons) but for being himself.

The elderly Barenboim gets the same treatment, though it seems less absurd, because there are still lovely things happening beneath the hailstorm of wrong notes. And in the past there were master pianists, such as Curzon and Kempff, whose shaky live performances conveyed more of the essence of the music than their studio recordings: they weren't being applauded simply for being themselves.

In any case, Pollini's technique is shot to pieces in a different way -- far fewer wrong notes, but the legendary precision is gone. And, without that, he has nothing to say. Indeed, he gives the impression of not wanting to say anything.

Listening to his Pathétique sonata, I wondered if he was just there to collect his cheque. He could hardly be bothered to dot the chords in the Grave opening, which should be tightly coiled so the main theme shoots up the keyboard like a rocket. That didn't happen. In all three Beethoven sonatas, Pollini ironed out contrasts of tempo and dynamics. Also, he kept shaving the ends of phrases and squeezing pauses, as if to say, 'Let's get this over with.'

I don't see why we should make excuses for him because he's 75 years old. Knowing when to retire is one of the tests of a great pianist. Horowitz deserves full marks for pressing on until the end: the recordings of his mid-eighties are among his most treasurable, his bravura technique freakishly intact (most of the time) and his touch more luminous than ever. …

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