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Monday, May 6, 2013

Concert Review: A Day at the Races

Maurizio Pollini plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Preacher man: Maurizio Pollini played Beethoven at Carnegie Hall this Sunday.
Photo © Universal Classics.
The return of pianist Maurizio Pollini to the concert stage of Carnegie Hall this spring was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the spring classical season. The Italian-born pianist had been forced to cancel appearences in 2011 and 2012. Adding to the excitement: the fact that Sunday's program featured the award-winning recording artist playing nothing but Beethoven: four of those piano sonatas dubbed the "New Testament" of the instrument.

Mr. Pollini started off with two of the most popular "name" sonatas, the Pathetique (No. 8) and the Waldstein. (No. 21.) These performances (on a special Steinway shipped to Carnegie Hall from Italy by Angelo Fabbrini, Mr. Pollini's favored piano tuner) were played in a hurried, manner, as if the soloist couldn't wait to send the instrument back.

Although the dramatic opening chords of the Pathetique gave way to a lush, singing tone in the opening grave, problems emerged in the fast section that followed. The headlong Allegro had two definite wrong notes, as if speed mattered more than accuracy. The famous central Adagio cantabile had a sweet, singing tone, evoking the operatic nature of Beethoven's writing. Mr. Pollini leaned heavily on the pedal throughout the last movement, giving the sonata a glissando texture that sounded foreign to the ear.

The Waldstein had problems too, stemming mainly from the barreling tempo and extensive reliance on the sustain pedal. The central Introduzione was played fast, again with a feeling not of urgency but of indifference, as if the great man could not be bothered with the finer details of this work. The transition to the last movement was swift and subtle, with the change in theme barely registering before the soloist was, once more, off to the races.

A paper insert in this concert's Playbill announced a program change: Mr. Pollini had decided to play Sonata No. 22 in F Major  instead of No. 24 in F sharp. The altered program led to the first rays of light in that afternoon's performance, a radiant first movement contrasting the "masculine" staccato first subject with the more languid, "feminine" curves. Mr. Pollini took joy in weaving these two musical ideas together, creating a taut springboard for the Allegretto that followed.

Finally it was time for the last of the "name" sonatas on this program: No. 23 in F minor, otherwise known as the Appassionata. These three movements were Beethoven playing of the very highest caliber, precise and controlled with the music drawn in arcs of melody that seemed to sweep forth in a torrent of sound. The central movement was hushed and reflecitive, with gentle massage of each notes from Mr. Pollini's manicured fingers. The alarm-call that led to the final Allegro was played with power from the shoulders, with the flood of notes emerging in an outpouring of sound. Here at last was what the audience had come to hear.

Met with a thunderous ovation, Mr. Pollini returned for two encores. Both of these were Beethoven Bagatelles, light piano works written by the great composer for instructional purposes. In Mr. Pollini's sure hands, the poetry of these miniatures came through, carefully played with a sweet, singing tone from the specially ordered Steinway. It proved a most satisfying coda.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.