Monday 25 March 2024


Maurizio Pollini has passed: one of the final survivors of a generation of musicians for whom music and political radicalism were not alien to each other, a time in which Pollini could be booted off his own recital for speaking out against imperialist war, the generation in Italy of Nono and Abbado and the Italian Communist Party, which he joined at the beginning of the Years of Lead; the generation, too, of performers like Pollini who were committed, not only to the standard repertoire, treated in all its continuing complexity, rather than as mausoleum or ornament, but to the astringencies with which the modernism of the pre- and post-world war years still offers its challenges fifty, a hundred years on. What survives, the performances, all of them, the official releases and the bootlegs, the unrecorded recitals witnessed by capacity crowds: the tolling bells and flowing waves and hammer blows of Nono's sofferte onde serene, the gleaming un-sentimentality of a Chopin that, precisely by virtue of its unsentimentality, could move to tears; Stockhausen and Boulez and Beethoven and Schuman, reworked and refined in each performance in search of a core, not fixed but changing, always in motion. 

This afternoon I've been listening to a late '70s recital uploaded to Youtube--one of many, and one I'd not heard before. In Salzburg in 1977, Pollini plays Webern's Variations for Piano, Boulez's Deuxième Sonate, Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, and a Beethoven bagatelle as encore. The Webern opens, played, as it's clichéd but true to remark with regard to Pollini, with a sense of architecture--the beauty of structure, of audible relation and ordering--but also of the pathos that Webern wrote into his expression markings, the condensation of huge feeling into seconds of time, tiny phrases, single notes or pauses. Then the Boulez, played with a speed beyond the limits of physicality or thought, precise at every instant, intoxicating, acerbically glittering; and the leanness of the Schoenberg little piano pieces, like the Webern, enormous in their miniaturism, what their composer called the "burning" associations and connections of feeling rendered precisely through precise articulation of what in its mood shies away from precision; calls from the edge, cries to the future heard from the past and brought into the present and to presence through a touch at once delicate and severe, hard, implacable; a performance that fully lives up to the demands out of which the pieces were written and to which such a performance returns them, questions without answers, or answers for which we don't yet know properly how to ask the questions, as their meaning shifts in time and what seemed graspable, that fire, in all its flawed and visionary expectation, fades away once more. 


I only saw Pollini live once, last June: his recital at the Southbank Centre had already been postponed once, alongside a number of other recent cancellations, and we worried it might not happen; but the event went ahead, and in the event, was probably his final public performance. I don't know if I'll know how to talk about this adequately, that sense of watching a performer who for years was a standard of absolute virtuosity--criticized for an overtly technical approach--yet who in his final decade, as ageing had its effect on something that could anyway only by some sort of super-human means by sustained, had instead been criticized for fluffs, flubs, the disintegration of technique, and whose recital was full of an un-intended drama. It was like no other recital I've seen, in all its confusion and perplexity and what won through: the failure of memory, from the start sudden moments of forgetfulness, like seeing an actor forget their lines onstage; the sudden exit from the stool, to return with a sheaf of scattered sheet music; but returning, in fact, so quickly to the piano that he had no time to order the pages, and, while still playing, kept having to turn to pages to find the place in the score, before finally a page turner was enlisted; and in between, or at some point in the proceedings I can no longer remember, as bridge or patch, a kind of treading water, a playing for time, the unexpected return of improvisation to the western compositional tradition in what sounded like remembered approximations of the pieces to be played, some other music from elsewhere, in the mind or memory, a kind of phantom understudy, dancing out of reach. Were we hearing the advertized Schumann Arabesque, had he switched to the Chopin, or was this in fact some approximation of both, or neither, coalescing before collapse? Playing too fast, or too slowly, phrases and articulation tumbling into each other, unsure if we were hearing errors or had simply been off course by the whole presentation, but whether they were there or not, hearing, as the recital went on, more and more, moments of clarity, whether emotional or technical it doesn't matter, a fierceness, a heaviness, and a cantabile singing that, particular in the Chopin, cut through. Perplexed by it all, we talked about the expectations we put on performers, the idea of the start, the vision of the solo virtuoso, the instrumental maestro, alone on the bare stage, those expectations projected onto them as conduit for the music, the pathos of their failure, as what had been criticized for being virtuosically inhuman became all too human and what transpired was not awed witness to the sublime but a kind of uneasy voyeurism, in which the emotions of watching, listening, expecting, hoping, identification and dis-identification tore at the fabric of the concert ritual that Pollini had so long embodied; not in the politicized way of the famous, interrupted on-stage declamations about Vietnam, but in the reflexes of watching and listening, what it is we come to the music, and to particular performers of it, to hear. In all its difficulty it was both un-representative--as coda, as a heroic if failed effort, at end-of-life, to sustain a peak of performance--yet also representative of the difficult and the challenge that Pollini always presented and represented, suffering waves, serenity, leanness and burning feeling and the last fade to a silence now final, the stage cleared, the piano lid closed, the stool packed away.

Of this 1979 performance of Mozart's B Minor Adagio, what more could be said? Clarity of memory, boundedness of the boundless: "At 57 measures, the length of the piece is largely based on the performer's interpretation, including the decision of whether to do both repeats; it may last between 5+1⁄2 and 16 minutes" (like that of Claudio Arrau). The openness of form and its limits: the repeat and the return as acceptance and defiance at once, in this piece of sober mournfulness. In the 1979 performance, the notes hang into the silence, the raising of the foot from the pedal, the sudden stop, the beginning again, in a kind of declamative whisper. Three years later, Pollini plays it a full three minutes faster; it falls limpidly to a different kind of whisper, a different kind of hush, very much the same piece, but in its emphasis like the change from a patch of sunlight to one of shade, from tragedy to a restrained sadness none the less effecting--perhaps even more so. And these are just the traces of something that was so much richer or deeper than any of the one performances that nonetheless condensed, almost every time, an aspect of that richness. Without performances like this the music, however written, would and could not live: with them its afterlife stretches to a still visionary horizon on which a view is opened every time they're heard, the promise they contain.

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