Perhaps more of an advocate for contemporary music than any other major pianist essentially rooted in traditional repertory, Maurizio Pollini was born in Milan, Italy. He learned quickly and was given piano lessons from Carlo Lonati from an early age, making his public debut at the age of nine. Enrolling in the Milan Conservatory, he studied with Carlo Vidusso. In 1957 he performed a recital of Chopin etudes in Milan that drew favorable attention from the national Italian press. He won a second prize in the Geneva Competition in 1958. Embarking on further studies with Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, he won first prize in the Warsaw Chopin competition in 1960. At this point he began a highly successful and acclaimed international career as a piano virtuoso. He appeared in concert throughout Europe, performing concertos with top conductors, and also giving recitals. He found a particular affinity with his countryman, conductor Claudio Abbado; the two shared a similarly analytical approach in their interpretations. Many of Pollini's best concerto recordings and concert collaborations have been with Abbado. Pollini debuted in the United States at Carnegie Hall in New York on November 1, 1968. Since then his international and recording career has continued without pause.
He is a pianist with a clean, bright though weighty, and refined sound, with exceptional clarity. His repertoire is extraordinarily wide. He frequently performs Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Romantics such as Schubert and Schumann, but also the early modernists such as Prokofiev and Bartók. In the 1974 centenary celebrations of Arnold Schoenberg's birth he played programs encompassing that composer's complete piano music in several major musical centers, and he later recorded the entire body of work. His repertoire also extends into the avant-garde; in 1972 he gave the world premiere of Luigi Nono's Como una ola de fuerza y luz, (Milan, 1972) and recorded the work. He is also an enthusiastic performer of Boulez's Second Piano Sonata, regarded by some as the most difficult of all piano sonatas. He has recorded extensively, committing to disc works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Chopin, Bach, Boulez, and many others.
Since the 1980s, Pollini has been widening his activities as a conductor. He frequently led concerts from the keyboard, and has conducted orchestra concerts from the podium as well as leading operas. In 1987 he received the Ehrenring prize of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. His piano career has the individualism achieved by only a few great artists, continuing to focus on contemporary music and including concert series of his own design at such prestigious venues as the Salzburg Festival (in 1995 and 1999) and Carnegie Hall (in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons).