Royal Festival Hall, London
Works by Liszt were conspicuously absent from Maurizio Pollini's five-concert survey of piano music, from Bach to the 20th century, at the Festival Hall last year. But the second half of his latest appearance there was devoted to the composer. Four of Liszt's bleak, bare late miniatures preceded an account of the B minor Sonata.
It was serious, unsmiling stuff. The late pieces – Nuages Gris; Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro; La Lugubre Gondola and RW-Venezia – inhabit a world in which harmonic certainties are beginning to crumble, and Pollini shaped them into a seamless sequence that moved remorselessly from the shifting tonal quicksands of Nuages Gris to the anguished climax of the final Wagner memorial. It was steely and effective, and he went on to treat the great sonata in the same tough-minded way, his virtuosity combative rather than ingratiating, his intellectual grip on the structure unwavering.
Unfortunately, Pollini's approach to the Chopin sequence that made up the first half of his programme seemed conditioned by what was coming later. There was something dogged and detached about all the performances, even the B minor Scherzo Op 20 with which he ended the group and which was attacked at a breathless speed, yet never became exhilarating. The F minor Fantasy Op 49 and the Op 61 Polonaise-Fantaisie are two of Chopin's most original formal schemes, but Pollini presented them both in an almost uninterested way, never communicating their subtleties, let alone their enormous expressive power. The pair of Nocturnes from Op 69 were so uninvolving and shapeless it was hard to understand why he had included them at all, but then it was a puzzling recital altogether.
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