CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; 2 Nocturnes, Op. 27; 4 Mazurkas, Op. 30; Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31 – Maurizio Pollini, piano – DGG B0017385-02, 60:00 ***:
It was in 1974 that Maurizio Pollini (b. 1942) first inscribed the Chopin Preludes, and connoisseurs marveled at the pianistic felicities he had gleaned, both as the winner of the 1960 Chopin Competition in Warsaw and as a result of his studies with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Now, having reached his 70th birthday (January 5), Pollini revisits this Rosetta Stone of the Romantic movement, bringing a generally more somber, more austere approach that claims experience and economy over youthful elan and free rubato. Pollini adds the Op. 30 Mazurkas to his discography, having chosen to concentrate on distinctive periods of Chopin’s musical/chronological evolution; here 1835-1839.
Frankly, at times Pollini seems detached from the project at hand, moving rather stolidly through the opening C Major but capitalizing precisely on the avant-garde grotesquerie of the A Minor. The G Major offers excellent mechanics, but the right hand arpeggios could be construed as merely etude finger exercises. The D Major has articulation but little variation in the texture as it repeats. The diminuendo in No. 6 proves effective, but the A Major rather prosaically proceeds, Andantino perhaps, but aggrieved. Both the F-sharp Minor and the ensuing E Major ring with authoritative power but the poetry may seem lacking. The pedal in the E Major sustains the tone most ardently. The B Major allows Pollini to exhibit diaphanous bel canto vocalization, a feature we’d missed up to then. The potent Polish dance in G-sharp Minor brings the needed zal to the keyboard, no over-refinement here. The lovely F-sharp Major, Lento, becomes a study in dynamic nuance in which the left hand brings a distinctive baritone. The tiny E-flat minor grumbles in a manner suited to the finale of the B-flat Minor Sonata, resonant and pre-Mussorgsky.
With the D-flat Major, “Raindrop” Prelude, Pollini asserts his poetic nobility; the ostinato bass line, though, could be more pungent, less glib. The ferocious B-flat Minor Prelude exhibits bravura, but the emotional involvement escapes, almost too easily. T`he immediate fluency of the cryptic A-flat Major Prelude, however, compensates for any sangfroid, its shifts of descending register a model of restraint and Hemingway’s “iceberg” principle applied to musical evocation. The “fateful” F Minor with its wicked trill and dramatic fermata works well enough, but I’d prefer more marcato. The power of song marks the E-flat Major, the prelude in my mind most akin to the spirit of Schumann. The C Minor conveys a dark intimacy, well paced. The final group of four preludes might be construed as a sonata in miniature, the B-Flat’s surging forth in lustrous cantilena in several registers. The G Minor serves as a fiendishly compact scherzo; the F Major the most translucent “Aeolian harp” interlude; and the D Minor as a fitting testament to Dionysiac plummets into the Abyss.
Pollini renegotiates two of the set of 19 Nocturnes, the 1835 C-sharp Minor and D-flat Major, Op. 27. The first, opening sotto voce, gradually ascends to a potent statement of Polish national identity, the spirit defiant a la Beethoven. The perennial D-flat Major, despite its innately pellucid beauty, appears metronomic in rhythm, missing that touch of improvisation Lipatti or Moravec brings to its idiosyncratic magic. Clarity and innate metric sympathy mark the Four Mazurkas of 1837 via Pollini, which he intones with elegant directness and vocal elasticity, a natural singer. The B Minor’s subtle shifts of accent are worth the price of admission. The D-flat often provided an effusive vehicle for Michelangeli; Pollini, too, relishes its soaring majesterial spirit. The most ambitious of the set, in C-sharp Minor, elicits from Pollini a wry sense of plastic wit, presented in idiosyncratic counterpoints and graceful figures in the left hand.
Pollini concludes with the dark tiger of the Four Scherzos, the B-flat Minor of 1837. Rather straightforward, in the manner more of Artur Rubinstein, Pollini presents its alternately nervous and heroic tensions. The care with which Pollini invests his triplet figures warrants our admiration. The illusion of speed Pollini effects by the dynamic consistency of his approach, streamlined and unmannered, emphasizing the long line. I prefer his own master Michelangeli here, whose sense of the ominous imparted more dire drama in this monumental moment of theater, which Pollini treats as an extended exercise in massive or leggiero textures.
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