Notes and Editorial Reviews
No prizes for predicting that this performance is technically flawless. What may come as a shock is its sheer passion -- to say that Pollini plays as if his life depended on it is an understatement.
No prizes for predicting that this Liszt B minor Sonata is technically flawless and beautifully structured. What may come as more of a shock (though not to those who have followed Pollini's career closely) is its sheer passion. To say that he plays as if his life depended on it is an understatement, and those who regularly accuse him of coolness should sit down in a quiet room with this recording, a decent hi-fi system and a large plateful of their own words.
The opening creates a sense of coiled expectancy,
without recourse to a mannered delivery such as Brendel's on Philips, and Pollini's superior fingerwork is soon evident. His virtuosity gains an extra dimension from his ability at the same time to convey resistance to it—the double octaves are demonstrably a fraction slower than usual and yet somehow feel faster, or at least more urgent. There is tensed steel in the very fabric of the playing.
By the two-minute mark so much passion has been unleashed one is bound to wonder if it has not all happened too soon. But that is to underestimate Pollini's unerring grasp of the dramatic structure and its psychological progression from paragraph to paragraph; it is also to underestimate his capacity to find extra technical resources when it would seem beyond the power of flesh and blood to do so. Another contributing factor, which for some listeners may take more adjusting to, is his determination to maintain the flow in lyrical paragraphs, at tempos slightly more forward-looking and with breathing-spaces slightly less conspicuous than usual. This tends to be Pollini's preference whatever the repertoire, and in some of his live performances (for instance of Brahms Intermezzos and Schubert Impromptus) it has left me unconvinced. But when allied to such depth of rhetorical declamation and such breadth of dramatic vision, it works superbly for Liszt. Throughout the performance floods of feeling and dams of intellectual willpower vie with one another to extraordinarily compelling effect.
If there is a place where crucial detail is glossed over, it is just before the fugato (around 17'30"), where the ppp scales lack ethereality. Here Pollini seems to have his sights set on integrating the whole descent from the slow movement climax to the fugato. With the return of the opening motif at 18'21" there is indeed a marvellous sense of one huge arc encompassing the whole work to this point, but I still don't believe that the withdrawn mysticism of those scales need have been sacrificed.
The fugato progresses with terrifying inexorability towards the main recapitulation, where the floodgates really open—rarely has recapitulation seemed a more inadequate word. I hope aspiring pianists don't rush to emulate Pollini's combined speed and power in such passages (enough muscles were strained and hearts broken in the past by rash imitators of Horowitz). A tiny reservation has to be entered over the gradual release of the final climactic harmony (25'49")—surely a sudden gesture is called for here? But the final page is pure mastery, a fitting conclusion to a spell-binding performance. It seems not so much that Pollini has got inside the soul of the music but that the music has got inside him and used him, without mercy, for its own ends.
I suppose it would be wise to moderate such statements, for fear of arousing unrealistic expectations. Yet I cannot bring myself to write dispassionately about such impassioned playing. I must stress though that while the pianism can soberly be described as sensational, it is never sensationalist. Its expressive and virtuosic extremes are always subordinate to wholeness of vision, and it is this, even more than the delirious intensity of individual passages, which should ensure that this recording will last.
Some readers may wonder why Brendel and Richter (also on Philips) still feature among the listed comparisons when the former's tone production is so idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) and when the latter seems to have been recorded at the far end of an aircraft hangar (it is actually a live recording from Budapest in 1960). Once again though, it is wholeness of vision and the sense of being possessed by the music which elevate them above the crowd of excellent contenders. It is only right, too, that Feltsman on CBS should receive credit for some exquisite piano playing and some inspired touches of interpretation (even if every so often the dramatic tension ebbs a little). Of these three Feltsman is by far the best recorded; but DG go one better for Pollini, giving him a fraction more spaciousness and ambience without any loss in immediacy or clarity. I do wish they had allowed a Few seconds of atmosphere before the first note, however.
It is worth recalling that Richter's CD comes with a blistering account of Liszt's "Funérailles" (Harmonies poéliques ci religieuses) and an earboggling one of the Hungarian Fantasia; Feltsman has the three "Sonetti del Petrarca" from Années de pélerinage plus "St Francois d'Assise: La prédication aux oiseau" (Légendes), all beautifully played. Brendel also has the Sermon, with its companion piece "St Francois de Paule marchant sur les flots" and both the Lugubre gondola pieces.
Liszt's late piano pieces are not high on my personal list of favourites; but Brendel undeniably catches their obsessive desolation to remarkable effect. In Pollini's hands Unsiern certainly has a fine inexorable tread and La lugubre gondola land R. W.—Venezia are both beautifully weighted. But the unvaried phrases of Nuages grfs do nothing for me, and I can't detect that the audience (a rather restive one) adds to the sense of involvement in any of the three live recordings. To my ears the background ambience changes suddenly at l'lO" in La lugubre gondola. Still, after such a classic account of the Sonata I suppose almost anything would have been an anticlimax.
-- Gramophone [7/1990]
Works on This Recording
R. W. - Venezia, S 201 by Franz Liszt
Maurizio Pollini (Piano)
Written: 1883; Rome, Italy
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