Pollini’s Superb Beethoven Cycle Enhances Canon


Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas. Maurizio Pollini. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 4120 0. 8 CDs.

By Arthur Kaptainis

DIGITAL REVIEW — A word first on what this Deutsche Grammophon box is not: a reexamination of Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas with whatever wisdom and perspective Maurizio Pollini, 73, has acquired over the decades. Several of these recordings date from the 20th century, including the “Moonlight” (1992), “Waldstein” (1997), and Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111 (1975 and 1977). The final five, of course, are the works in which one might expect the cosmic glow of experience to be most manifest. Yet this is where Pollini started his journey, arriving at the easy and early Op. 49 Sonatas in 2014. A curious reversal.

Or is it? The Italian pianist has always been about clarity, command, and getting it right in an absolute way, regardless of the vintage of the music or which birthday he most recently celebrated. No law requires an artist to mellow with age. Having listened to these eight discs repeatedly and in shuffle-play order, I detect no difference between Pollini in his fourth decade and Pollini in his eighth. And I say more power to him.

Maurizio Pollini in the 1990s, with Beethoven's manuscript of the "Moonlight" Sonata.
Maurizio Pollini in the 1990s, with manuscript of the “Moonlight” Sonata.

Certainly whatever resentment I harbored over his disinclination to revisit the late sonatas evaporated a few minutes into Op. 101. Here is a vibrant interpretation of music that sounds intimate and experimental at once, the hands widely separated yet impeccably balanced, not least in the final cadence of the first movement, where the heights and depths seem to meet in a kind of Euclidian accord.

The ensuing march, which can be choppy, has playful lift, and if a listener wishes to deem Pollini cool and detached in slow movements, as the critical playbook would have it, he will find no encouragement here. Yet it cannot be denied that the highest praise is owed the spiky fugue that constitutes the development of the finale. Few pianists realize the many strands of Beethoven’s imagination as convincingly — an observation that goes double for the finale of Hammerklavier in a performance of almost frightening authority. Listen to the manic leaps and trills! This is Extreme Beethoven. While Pollini does not observe the composer’s near-impossible metronome recommendation for this movement, he fully captures the spirit of the main tempo marking: Allegro risoluto.

Fine, you say. Terrific fugue, plenty of bravura (as long as this word is understood to encompass intellectual as well as mechanical achievement). But what about the moments of sweet repose? It is true that Pollini is not one to linger. The Allegretto finales of Op. 31, No. 1 and Op. 31, No. 2 (“Tempest”) are pushier than this marking implies. You might be inclined to congratulate the pianist for finding such an invigorating Andante in the second movement of Op. 22, before you realize the specified tempo is Adagio con molto espressione.

And anyone who takes the Sonata Op. 10, No. 2 in F Major to be one of the master’s more genial walks through the Vienna Woods will be surprised by the symphonic grandeur of this rendition. Pollini is both faster and darker in the Allegretto than Mari Kodama in her songful 2014 cycle on Pentatone and more ruthless in the Presto finale. These performances might function as examples of quintessentially masculine and feminine approaches — back in an age when this distinction was widely accepted.

It is important, of course, to avoid clichés and easy equations. Authority is not rigidity. The questioning bars that lead to the second theme of the first movement of Op. 2, No. 2 are free in tempo and a good example of Pollini’s capacity to place bar-by-bar expression at the service of structural strength. As for the contrapuntal prowess mentioned earlier, this is not confined to fugal passages. We hear the right-hand arpeggios of the finale of the “Moonlight” in all their détaché brilliance but also the pulse of the left hand underneath. Likewise, the opening of Op. 10, No. 1 is as crisp as can be, but what catches the ear is the clarity of the Alberti bass that interacts with the soaring second theme in such a satisfying way.

Pollini with Manuscript of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata.
Pollini with fragment of manuscript of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata.

As I commented at the outset, Pollini is a consistent performer over time and across styles. It is nevertheless possible to identify standout performances. The finale of Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”) could hardly be more exuberant and brilliantly lit. There are multiple attractions in Op. 2, No. 3, a recording from 2007 that shows the sexagenarian in fine technical fettle (I presume I am not the only amateur who finds the quicksilver thirds of the opening bar impossible to play clearly at a decent tempo). Take note of Pollini’s radically modern approach to the Scherzo, angular in the main section and sweeping enough in the Trio to seem an 18th-century premonition of its counterpart in the “Hammerklavier.” Firmly modernist, Pollini does not view the Op. 2 works with rear-view condescension or fuss about period niceties. Indeed, the pianist finds traces of Big Beethoven in Op. 49. Yet it should be noted that the arch-familiar Adagio cantabile of Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) is as relaxed and lyrical as it is under the fingers of the thoroughly poetic Wilhelm Kempff. And the Adagio of the “Hammerklavier” is all the more solemn for its momentum and clarity.

I have not mentioned Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), which strikes me as a merely very good performance. An intrepid collector might wish to acquire (by hook or by crook) Sviatoslav Richter’s breathtaking RCA recording of 1961. Pollini is more on form in Op. 53 (“Waldstein”) in a live recording of great excitement in which the headlong tempo in the first movement seems an integral part of the interpretation. And just as the Op. 2 works can sound surprisingly mature, there is no harm in hearing vitality in the famous last three sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, and 111).

Of course, Beethoven options are legion. To enter into extensive comparisons would quadruple the length of what is already becoming (I notice) a rather long article. As a Canadian, I can remark with pride that there are complete (or close-to-complete) cycles to choose from even among my compatriots Stewart Goodyear, Angela Hewitt, Anton Kuerti, Robert Silverman, and Louis Lortie. (Glenn Gould was both a selective and inconsistent Beethovenian.) Alfred Brendel’s traversals (especially the last) are rightly admired for their intellect and wit, and I would not deny the monumental status of the Artur Schnabel cycle of the early 1930s, which is arguably all the more alluring for its wispy mono sound.

Speaking of sound: Most of the Pollini recordings were made in the Herkulessaal in Munich, a resonant enough space. Nevertheless, the DG technical people (led by principal Tonmeister Klaus Hiemann) remained truthful over the years to Pollini’s analytical style, keeping the treble forward. Kodama (in five channels or stereo) is plummier, as is Ashkenazy on Decca (to mention a set available at a moderate price). No cycle will satisfy the demands of all listeners or do full justice to what I would contend to be the greatest body of music in existence. All the same, I plan to keep the Pollini box close to hand.

The program for Pollini’s Oct. 25 recital at Carnegie Hall includes three Beethoven sonatas (Op. 31, No. 2; Op. 78; Op. 57), along with Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and Op. 19.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post (Canada).