The great Italian pianist is 70 today. We celebrate - and listen to - his legacy as pianist, musician, and advocate of contemporary music.
Today is Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini's 70th birthday. There aren't many pianists whose CV runs from left-wing political activism to winning one of the worlds' most prestigious competitions, from commissioning and championing the rawest bleeding edges of contemporary music to building a reputation as one of the classics' and romantics' most coruscating interpreters. Yet Pollini has done all that, and more. He also, incidentally, has an no-holds-barred addiction to coffee and cigarettes which once landed him, the BBC, and me in a spot of bother: interviewing him at one of London's poshest hotels, he flagrantly defied the warnings not to smoke in the rooms, risking landing himself on the streets and the production team with a hefty fine. Maurizio didn't care and chain-smoked and espresso-ed his way through the interview.
So what is it that makes Pollini such a revered, revolutionary, but still controversial, musician? First of all, there's his (usually) umimpeachable technique. Have a listen to this, one of his most famous recordings, a disc of Webern, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and above all Boulez, the scarcely imaginable difficulties of the Second Sonata, which Pollini dispatches with an unmatched combination of precision, violence and expressive intensity. But there's also his lucid clarity and lyricism. It was his Chopin playing that won him the Chopin Competition in Warsaw when he was still a teenager; this disc of the Op 28 Preludes contains some of the most ravishing playing of these pieces you'll hear. And while it's a cliché to say that Pollini's playing is all about structure and imposing intellectual command, his Chopin is among the most considered and least sentimental you can hear - try these later recordings of the 4 Ballades to see what I mean.
Now, I said "usually unimpeachable" because there is another side to Pollini's pianism, which is that when things don't go right, they don't go right on a grand scale. I heard him play Beethoven sonatas at the Lucerne Festival last summer, performances that put an intellectual idea above mere practical realisation: in order to remove the pieces from any sense of cosseting familiarity, he played the Appassionata and Waldstein Sonatas at speeds that no human hands - and certainly not his own - could keep up with, and the result was playing of meaningless blandness and generalised impressionism.
But at his best, as in the Pollini-Project and Pollini-Perspectives concerts that he has been playing all over the world in recent seasons, programmes that put together new commissions as well as his favourite Stockhausen, Boulez and Nono pieces (including ...sofferte onde serene... composed for Pollini in 1976), with Beethoven, Chopin, and the classical repertoire, Pollini does something that no other pianist manages. He connects the blazing imagination of the new music he plays with his approach to the classics, releasing the timeless modernity at the heart of say, a Beethoven sonata, with the exploded classical conventions of such music as Boulez's sonatas. A live performance of Boulez's Second Sonata in Paris a couple of years ago, which Pollini played from memory, is one of the pianistic highlights of my life.
My personal favourite Pollini recording? It's one of those discs that introduced me to a masterpiece of the repertoire at an impressionable age, which fused performance and work forever in my imagination: his recording of Brahms's Second Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic and his great friend and collaborator, conductor Claudio Abbado. It's a Pollini classic, I think, making Brahms sound shockingly muscular, dynamic, and extreme, music-making that takes nothing for granted. Listen, enjoy, and wish Maurizio a happy, and youthful, 70th!
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