Friday, June 23, 2023

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Maurizio Pollini was back in London – following a year of ill-health and cancellations. His programme was of familiar repertoire, and there was a large audience to welcome the eighty-one-year-old, one of the very great pianists who still plays a huge role in forming the taste of three generations of music-lovers – particularly Chopin, Debussy, Schubert and Schumann. Playing his Fabbrini Steinway, with its lovely, ambiguous lower register, he opened with Schumann’s Arabeske, with Pollini’s direct line into the music’s face-off between sweet romance and pensive anxiety: that rare gift of reflecting content back to listeners in a way that flatters us and deepens our perceptions seemed undimmed.

Then things went badly awry. He just couldn’t find his way into Schumann’s Fantasie, and after two attempts he went off-stage to get his score. There followed a muddle with a technician trying to fix up the piano’s copy holder, with Pollini then trying to keep the show on the road, but fumbled page-turns, losing his way, long silences, going off-stage again, applause in the wrong places, all took their toll. And inevitably the vital, secure link between performer and audience was broken. Spectators were supportive and affectionate, but you wondered how he would recover.

There was a page-turner for the second half, yet there was something too dogged and unyielding about the way Pollini negotiated the technical demands and big gestures of Scherzo No.1. Growth, attack, tone and definition stayed stubbornly at the same level, and the way Chopin transfigures the progress of the Barcarolle from a brief journey in a gondola into an emblem of life’s passage struggled to register. Clouds of pedal and missed notes didn’t help. The short recital ended around nine o’clock, and despite a rapturous reception and heartfelt standing ovation, there were no encores. I was standing near the stage when Pollini emerged through the door and briefly stood there for his fourth curtain call. He looked like a ghost.


Arabeske in C, Op.18; Fantasie in C, Op.17


Mazurka in C-minor, Op.56/3; Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op.60; Scherzo No.1 in B-minor, Op.20

This review will also appear on The Classical Source