Maurizio Pollini (1942-2024) - In Memoriam


The young Maurizio Pollini

The indiscriminate power of Nature has now claimed the soul of Maurizio Pollini, one of the greatest of legendary pianists.

He accompanied me in sublime Chopin all my adult life in London and through Bach and innumerable piano compositions leading ultimately to the more inaccessible end of the music spectrum, the piano compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen …..

Glorious, uplifting musical memories overwhelm me at this fraught time in world history 

Sublime creation lies here, not destruction

At such moments as these, one is forced to think of the fragility yet ungovernable strength of life and musical art. So much forces one to listen to music overshadowed by the constant news of brutal  deaths and human suffering, particularly of children, that we receive each and every day

Such a rocky spiritual Everest we are forced to climb just now 

More emotion than I can express in mere words….

Thank God Pollini left us ineradicable artistic traces such as his unsurpassed EMI vinyl LP recording of the Chopin E minor concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Paul Kletzki after winning the 6th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1960. Ravishing transparency of a true style brillante, gloriously cantabile singing tone in the Romanze and refined touch. 

Aristocratic, classically sculpted beauty. Timeless.


‘That boy plays better than any of us jurors’ commented Arthur Rubinstein, Chairman of the competition jury

This recording has traveled the world with me, even to remote Norfolk Island in Oceania and the island provinces of Papua New Guinea in the Coral Sea …..

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In this fascinating article, Pollini was interviewed before a Carnegie Hall recital

It originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway’s award-winning magazine

MAURIZIO POLLINI REVEALS HIS PATHWAYS IN TO BACH, BEETHOVEN AND CHOPIN, AS WELL AS TO MORE MODERN COMPOSERS

By Ben Finane

MAURIZIO POLLINI WON the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition at the age of eighteen and went on to become one of the great pianists of his generation. Known for his technique and transparency at the keyboard, he champions a broad range of repertoire and, as I learned in conversation, a scholarly approach to each composer within it.

I spoke to Pollini in the afternoon before one of his three Chopin programs at Carnegie Hall. We discussed classical music over the blare of smooth jazz in a hotel café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After my first question, the Italian hesitated and asked if we might wait until his espresso arrived. When it did, he downed it in a sip, reflected for a moment, and said, “Okay. Let’s begin.”

Photo: Mathias Bothor

This is a Chopin year. I imagine that relationships with composers change over time, and I wonder how your relationship with Chopin has changed since your competition year?

My competition year in Warsaw was many year ago, in ’60. This was the most important moment in the beginning of my relationship with Chopin. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Arthur Rubinstein, who was on the jury of the competition and was very kind to me. And I was able to hear him play — he did some marvelous concerts there. From this began a friendship that continued for many years. I saw him rather frequently in Paris and when he went to Italy to give concerts . . . but you are asking about my relationship to Chopin.

The contract with this extraordinary composer for the piano has been there for all my life; I have never stopped playing Chopin. He is a unique composer, you see. He is somebody who wrote for the piano perhaps better than anyone else, who invented a marvelous sonority for the instrument, who has a style of playing which has little relation to the style of other musicians. The way you play Chopin is much different from Liszt, for instance. Chopin has a particularly personal style, and what is more important is the magical effect of his sonorities, the depth of his music. . . . His late work shows such density, a master of composition. My relationship with Chopin has become, if possible, closer and closer to his music as time passes — I have become more and more enthusiastic. He’s a miracle.

Also during this centenary it would be a very good thing to remember Robert Schumann, who is a composer of about the same level of Chopin and with so many works that are not often played. This could be the right moment to make them better known to listeners. With Chopin, there is less to do on this front because he practically wrote only masterpieces, in a sense. Those works with an opus number — he accepted these — are all masterpieces. But there are masterpieces among the works Chopin neglected because he was extremely severe, so strict with himself.

What is special for you about Schumann?

Undoubtedly another miracle, Schumann. It is surprising that some of the greatest interpreters of Chopin . . . [Pianist–conductor Alfred] Cortot has said that he appreciated the music of Schumann more than that of Chopin. Arthur Rubinstein has said that Schumann might have been even greater than Chopin. I don’t agree [chuckles], we should be clear. But I think that Schumann undoubtedly remains a miracle of the nineteenth century and it is important to explore his production and his seldom-played works.


You have mentioned Rubinstein twice now already. What did you learn from him? Was he a mentor for you?

[Smiles.] I learned from him because he was an example of how Chopin should be played. I always referred to Rubinstein as an ideal, together with Cortot — completely different from Rubinstein, but also extremely convincing and great. I learned from Rubinstein by listening to him, not through conversation. I remember only — if there was a lesson he was meant to give me in one minute — him putting his finger on my shoulder during the competition as I played, saying, ‘I play only with the weight of the arm, yet I am never tired.’ The finger was so heavy! It was a very short lesson about how to play the piano.

He showed you where your power should come from?

From your whole body, in effect. Obviously, the shoulder shouldn’t stay up.

During your respite from performance following the Chopin Competition, when you focused on expanding your repertoire, it has been said that you struggled with perfectionism. Is that true?

No [scoffs]. I never gave any importance to — in fact, I saw and see very well the limited aspect of — a performance devoid of errors. This means absolutely nothing. I have struggled all my life for another thing: expressing the character of the composer, the character of the music. This has always been a more important goal — from then to now this has been a constant: To try to understand and convey the composer’s intention.

This period of repertory expansion wasn’t limited to Beethoven and Schumann but also included Berio and Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen.

These came gradually.

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“Every day it is an enormous piece of luck that I can sit at the piano and practice,” Maurizio Pollini observed in an interview (BBC Radio 3, 2017), “because I have a relationship with wonderful pieces of music. This is something absolutely special. I play only pieces that I would be happy to play in every moment of my life.”

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An extraordinary account of one of Maurizio Pollini's last recitals

June 2023

London salutes a legend Maurizio Pollini.

'One of the most remarkable descriptions of the humanity and courageous playing of a great artist I have ever read…. required reading for any musician and listener who values ​​ untouchable integrity in music and life itself…. an astonishing and creatively constructive piece of critical assessment and poetic writing'

                                                                                                                  Michael Moran,  Warsaw


THE STORY OF A MIRACLE!

by

Antonio Morabito - a young Italian pianist graduate of the RCM London

(translated by Christopher Axworthy from the original more beautiful and poetic Italian)

"The day before yesterday I witnessed what I would define, in no uncertain terms, a miracle. Indeed, a series of miracles in an evening that is unbelievable!

Pianists please read this post.

I start from the beginning. Maurizio Pollini, renowned Italian pianist, one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century gave a recital at the Festival Hall at the Southbank in London. Obviously, with my dear friend Riccardo, we go very excited to listen to what promises to be a concert we will never forget. It was, but not for the reasons you would expect…

Silence in the hall, of the kind that is generally felt in sacred places before mass begins, lights off and stage lit with the piano in all its majesty in the centre. Everyone looking at the little door on stage left. Here it is! It's really him, it's not a YouTube frame, he really exists! 

Pollini enters a hall, packed to the rafters, staggering, bent over, almost in a hurry, he manages to reach the piano to lean on and stop himself falling over.He finally arrives, leans on the piano and bows gratefully for the unending applause that usually awaits a great artist at the end of the concert. There's no doubt, the audience knows who they are looking at and pays homage to him. We join in the tribute , grateful, excited and proud to be Italian like him.

The program is interesting, Schumann and Chopin. Riccardo, also a pianist, and I already imagine the refined artistry that awaits us too. The applause is still going on but Pollini is impatient, he doesn't even adjust the bench, he doesn't take those usual seconds of concentration that you would expect, he doesn't let the applause end and immediately starts playing. Everyone stops clapping instantly. The concert has begun! We are once again immersed in the religious silence of before with the only difference that this time we are all hypnotized by his hands and by what they will be able to do.

The first piece is the famous Arabesque Op. 18.We are looking for the refinements, the enjoyment that comes from the interpretation of an artist of his caliber, but the Arabesque is nervous, with not too much emotional involvement, of a sound that appears shallow and hurried in the cantabile and too forced in the forte (Pollini uses his whole body for the 'sforzandi').His tenseness is palpable, you can feel it even from the back row of the hall. It's a lesson for me. A confirmation, if any were needed, that in a concert hall a connection is created between artist and audience that is really difficult to explain rationally.

Pure magic. The piece ends. It wasn't what we expected but, as you know, the start of a concert is terrible for anyone, can you imagine for an 81 year old man? And then how can we ever dare to criticize Pollini!? We just join the thunderous applause of a crowd that couldn't wait to continue its initial homage to the master and we give him the due recognition that he deserves, regardless. The second piece is the Fantasy op 17.We cannot wait! Surely after the initial emotion he will demonstrate his mastery.

What will happen, however, is unimaginable. Pollini sits down, hastily, and this time too he doesn't let the applause end and starts playing again. But the piece that he plays is not Schumann's Fantasy, after a few notes we look at each other with Riccardo puzzled and I ask him: “Wasn't there the Fantasy now?”. Double-checking the program to see if I remember correctly. No mistake, he's playing another piece. But what? After a very short time I understand that Pollini is improvising. Rapid arpeggios and harmonic sequences that occasionally recall passages from the Fantasy but nothing that has to do with a real piece nor with the Fantasy. 

The atmosphere is surreal. My heart is pounding, I empathize with him, I can't believe it's really happening. The great Pollini forgot the beginning of Schumann's Fantasy. The confirmation comes when he stops playing and in a great state of confusion brings his hands to his head as if to say: “What's wrong with me?”

For a moment I think of everything: “Is he feeling ill? A dizziness? Maybe something more serious?” The audience is astonished, petrified.He resumes playing, more arpeggios and miscellaneous improvisations, loud, angry, using his whole body to play, almost angry with the piano. The same piano that crowned him for decades as one of the greatest pianists of recent times has now become the enemy which is forcing him to perform under these conditions.He stops playing, concluding with a cadenza in C major, pretending he's played a piece that really exists.

He stands up. The audience applauds shocked, worried, incredulous. It's not the same applause as previously This is different. Pollini leaves the stage with the same speed with which he had entered.I'm in a cold sweat, my heart is pounding. I feel like it's me on stage. And if I were there, what would I do? I don't want to think about it. Endless minutes go by in which I sincerely think that a staff member will soon come out to say that the master, due to illness, is unable to continue. But no one comes on stage. Time passes and a general murmur accompanies anxious moments.

But here is the first miracle. 

The little door opens. It's not the hall staff. It's the Master! Pollini returns to the stage and the audience goes crazy with joy and emotion. They shower him once again with incredible affection! (By the way, the London crowd is not renowned for its warmth, more for its composure). But this Friday night is the night of miracles and anything can happen. Pollini returns to the stage with the music, he doesn't have the hall staff bring it to him. He carries it himself. It's his music book by him that weighs like a rock this time. He will play with the music in front of him. 

Right after him a member of staff enters carrying the piano stand to put on the piano. The stand is placed on the piano while the audience does not stop encouraging Pollini by applauding like never before and shouting “bravo” loudly. The maestro always appears nervous and at the same time sorry but always grateful to the audience and in fact he takes a shy bow and without waiting for the staff member to leave the stage, he starts playing again before the applause ends. 

This time it is the beginning of Schumann's Fantasy. Unmistakable! But there is something wrong, the score is there but where is the page turner and his chair? How is it possible that there isn't one? Maybe he just needs to have the music in front of him for the beginning but he won't use it? Unfortunately this is not the case as incredibly he turns the pages by himself by interrupting the piece or removing some notes! It's absurd! How is it possible that he is doing this? Why didn't he call a page turner? 

There is general embarrassment in the air and the first movement continues with many uncertainties, memory lapses, improvised or repeated parts. His hand is shaking and he can't turn the pages. I am literally dead. I can't believe my eyes. It is a mixture of sadness and emotion. Pollini ends the first movement somehow.

And here is where the second mysterious miracle happens. 

Pollini stands up, tired, weary, angry, incredulous and extremely sad. The entire audience bursts into thunderous applause, the maestro almost in tears is forced to bow down and gestures with his hands as if to say “I'm sorry, forgive me”

And here the public does something unthinkable: they all stand up, stalls, stage, anyone, even the hall staff, in an ovation that I have personally never seen in my life! At that moment it was the piano world, and not only, present in London that embraced the sacrosanct fragility of a man who is a giant, but still a man and, with that embrace, they were reminding him of it. Pollini leaves the scene but the public doesn't stop cheering him on. They praise the great man but also the great pianist that he is. It won't be a performance to compromise a stratospheric career!

The Milanese pianist returns with a page turner and the concert continues. The Fantasy ends which is affected by the initial event but which in any case is completed with dignity. Same thing will be for the second part of the concert with Chopin. He will play everything, with the score in front of him, certainly not at the full level of his undisputed piano skills, always nervous, but without major problems, allowing us to glimpse the expressiveness of his touch, the brilliance and agility of some passages which, although not always impeccable, leave the listener with the idea that he is in any case in front of an exceptional pianist, witness of the piano history of an entire century.

What happens after the last note of the concert belongs to history. The audience applauds non-stop, all on their feet, an exhausted pianist, clearly embarrassed by applause he probably thinks he doesn't deserve. Bent over on himself, leaning on what was his Olympus and at the same time his suffering, he bows grateful and is moved. It is truly a moving scene. He will be forced out 4 times, the audience shouts for an encore. It's probably not the right day to continue playing but the public hopes for it, in vain, convinced that at any moment Pollini can erase what has gone wrong with a few notes played divinely as only he can.

No encore, the concert is over but his lesson will remain eternal for me. What this pianist did is miraculous. The strength and courage of a man who could have escaped at any moment but didn't. 

He remained on stage and demonstrated to everyone that being an artist is above all a moral duty towards Art, towards oneself and towards the public. The man who won, among others, the Warsaw Chopin Competition, the most important piano competition on the planet, shows his fragility and his art remains indelible in the hearts of all those who recognized it and paid homage to him, no matter what happened. As it should be. 

I would have liked to hug that elderly man on stage who could have been my grandfather.I would have liked to say to him: “Maestro, don't worry, you remain a giant of Music, an immense artist and today you have given us more than other millions of flawless pianists could ever convey”.

I tried to wait for him in vain, together with hundreds of people of all nationalities, at the artists' exit but he preferred to leave through a secondary exit. Like the true artists do. No autographs, no selfies. I guess he thought: “I'm not worthy, not this time.” But I really wanted to answer him: “Yes Master, you will always be worthy. Especially this time.” 

Antonio Morabito

Audience response at that remarkable recital





Here is a link to ‘Chopin osobisty’ (‘Chopin people’) at 16.00 CET Sunday 24th March on Polish National Radio 2 (Dwojka) hosted in Polish by the gifted presenter Róża Światczyńska. 

I hope she will include rare recordings the station possesses of Pollini in the 1960 competition. If you miss this programme, she has a remarkable podcast of all her Chopin programmes. 

https://www.polskieradio.pl/Portal/Schedule/Schedule.aspx

Podcasts

https://www.polskieradio.pl/8,dwojka/521,chopin-osobisty

There was much playing of Pollini recordings here in Poland last night as you might expect. 

The piano dominates so much instrumental musical activity here.

Late last evening the rare, now unobtainable, 1977 recording of his 'Hammerklavier’ sonata was transmitted ….. absolutely overwhelming.

This creatively followed a direct broadcast from the Beethoven Easter Festival of the Overture and ‘Good Friday Spell’ from Parsifal followed logically by Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in E major WAB 107. Such appropriate music ….

Polish National Radio 2 (Dwojka) is remarkable in classical music programming in Poland. I think this attitude follows the utterly uncompromising nature of the Polish soul towards music and much else in life. The country would not even exist without this valiant nature.  

There is a true Polish renaissance in culture, music and the arts now taking place. The  shattered ‘Iron Curtain’ was a cultural as well as political and military barrier. The artistic and creative results of its fall keep coming in glorious, inspirational train …. despite all ....

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