wed 19/06/2024

Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall

Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall

Bach at his dullest and dumbest

Maurizio Pollini sucks Bach dry

Take one venerated living pianist and one venerated epic of the piano canon and what do you get? Two and a half hours of the most inert pianism imaginable.

That there was a human with a pulse performing the first book of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier was only confirmed about half an hour in. A flicker of emotion, variety, suppleness, reared its head in the E-flat prelude. Character attempted to creep into proceedings briefly in the Fugue in E major. Any flashes of communication, generosity, warmth, rhythmic lightness or dynamic expression that one encountered were but minor mutinies, quickly suppressed. Pollini soulless vision of the work was nothing if not dogged.

Exceptions to this could be found in the faster preludes, where a terror would seize him. But whenever it did, whenever his still pretty dexterous fingers seemed almost to be breaking free of the jackboot of his mind, a harsh muzzling would follow. Hosni Mubarak has nothing on last night's reign of terror at the Royal Festival Hall.

The musical fascism was hardly surprising. It's how Pollini has always been. I remember now why I'd binned so many of his CDs. But I thought he might have mellowed with age. His last concert had been brilliantly messy. I'd hoped that a Romantic fervour had taken hold. But it hadn't. Last night's performance was idiosyncratic only in its slavish devotion to the baldest of urtexts.

We know that The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of studies. The subheading announces it: "For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of Those Already Skilled in this Study". We know that there is no mention here of presenting these exercises for public performance. But if the purpose of Pollini's recital was to show just how un-entertaining it could be, why perform in a theatrical setting? In fact why perform at all?

And why perform a work in front of an audience if you aren't willing to employ any style that might open up the mysteries of the work and engage that audience? A Romantic stamp was rejected. As was a Baroque one. Every offer of ornamentation was turned down. Every suggestion to dance was refused. Every proposal to sing was met with a shallow bark.

As always with Pollini, one imagined that polemics were driving this interpretation, in particular a teleological desire to find the 20th century in the 18th. He appeared to be re-imagining the works in the light of Stockhausen's anarchic moment form, whereby independent events become king. At least that was my way to explain his maddening inability to join up basic musical phrases or to let dance patterns frolic. A less charitable explanation would have put it down to a poor night's work.

The indefensible ponderousness of some of the preludes and fugues suggested as much. Pollini (score always at the end of his nose) bashed out subjects like a blind man at a typewriter. Several cadences were messily resolved. Most of the fugues were delivered untangled. Everything was overpedalled. Even a Modernist defence of his approach didn't stack up. The articulation was too poor. Most of the fugues might as well have been for one voice rather than three, four or five, so smudged was the counterpoint. And worst of all was the omission of an entire musical tradition: the dance. Where was it?

Most musicians loosen up as they grow older. Pollini seems to have lost none of his desire to control, despite having far less ability to exert that control. It's a way of playing that I had thought had been consigned to history, with the lame 20th-century polemics of authenticity and composer fidelity. But Pollini is of the old guard. Compare the quirkiness and generosity of Dudamel's Beethoven's Seven the night before to Pollini's deadening Calvinist subservience to the text. Even Bach would have been embarrassed.

Every offer of ornamentation was turned down. Every suggestion to dance was refused. Every proposal to sing was met with a shallow bark

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'Musical fascism'? This is is criticism at its most idiotic, completely lacking in any sense of proportion. You ought to hang your head in shame.

What a spectacularly offensive 'review.' 'Hosni Mubarak has nothing on last night's reign of terror at Royal Festival Hall': as the previous comment suggests, you should be ashamed of yourself for this. This is not criticism.

It's a pity you wrote that, Igor, since it gives ammunition to the hounds who don't think you write proper criticism. You do, and you gave me a vivid flavour of Pollini's current form, however reluctant I might be to believe it. But don't you see, these headline-catching phrases blind those who think they can do better to your real qualities. Tone it down just a bit without losing your inimitable style.

Attention seeking 'critique' of last night's concert - totally disagree about the articulation, I though it was beautiful as was his touch (as ever). Some of us like our Bach played without affectation and I for one could hear the part-playing even despite the hugely irritating coughing. Give me a pianist who brings us the music any day - it's sad that too many are unwilling to listen to it and instead want fireworks and flowery interpreations of Bach. But please, above all, your use of the word 'fascism' Igor is moronic - go away and find out what it means

Let me clarify. My summoning up of the spectre of Hosni Mubarak was done for metaphorical effect. Pollini did not literally open fire on his fingers - or the audience. His mind is not literally jackbooted. His fingers weren't literally mutinying. When Tatiana Nikolayeva was once asked after a recital of Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues why she'd been so aggressive, she screamed, "Because we are at War!' Pollini was also at war. With his and our humanity. As is Mubarak.

"Look to the young and Romantic traditions are seizing youthful hearts." If looking to the young means reading this kind of criticism then I will pass. Your reference to Mubarak was offensive and your clarification inadequate. Arts desk please send someone else to review the rest of the Pollini concerts.

This review is self-indulgent, offensive, inaccurate, petty and inane. I was at the concert and thought it was magnificent. I have come to realise over the many years that I have been attending Pollini's concerts that there is a cabal of critics who seem hell bent on dissing (I tried to find another word, I promise) Pollini. There is something so predictable about it, so boring, so at odds with the audience (who were not looking at their watches). Incidentally, my mother was at the Dudamel concert at the Barbican - she summed it up as "loud".

Another terrible review (to be expected from this critic). I went to Dudamel's concert instead and how I regret that decision! Not having been at the RFH, I can't say for sure that Pollini played well. But from his past performances, his CDs of Bach and other comments posted here and other well respected blogs, I have no doubt that the comments made by this critic are, once again, ridiculous. Probably the only reason why people read his reviews is that they are published earliest. I'm glad he no longer contributes to the Telegraph.

When I see any review condemning a performance to be "soulless", I ask myself whether it is the reviewer who lacks the soul to appreciate the performance. Sadly and unsurprisingly, this seems to be the case here. I see in this review the reviewer's desire to control London concert-goers' musical taste - could I dare to call it the "journalistic fascism"?

Unfortunately, I had the displeasure to be at this performance by Pollini and can confirm, without hesitation, the sentiments of this review. Except the part about Mubarak. Pollini's performance WAS insanely overpedalled - I know because I was watching his feet from time to time and it appeared that his foot was only lifted on each beat to allow some of the voices to breath. I had the impression that the overall performance was stifled by the muddy sound he deliberately created. The RFH is noted for its dryness so it definitely wasn't the acoustics. The other feature that bothered me was the incredible number of errors - flat out mistakes and fudging. There were several occasions during the more technical passages where Pollini would simply drop notes in order to catch up rhythmically. And even there, his tempo was way off. He was awash at sea - sloshing around in the tempo and completely overwhelmed. There were many occasions where he appeared scared rather than in command of the music and perhaps was using the pedal to plaster over an even greater number of errors. The WTC exposes the pianist completely and Pollini was completely and unpleasantly exposed. The result was a sloppy, unfocused mess of a performance. There were only rare glimpses of the stupendous, cosmic nature of the work - something I experience in the renditions by Gould on piano or Staier on harpsichord. They seemed to occur more by accident than by design - as if the sheer genius of the works was resistant to even a half competent performance. On the way out, I overheard several comments along the lines of "He's known for his Chopin..." as if to explain the confounding and frustrating experience many must have had. Perhaps Pollini should stick to post 19th Century composers. I don't really care for the sides in this debate of pro and anti-Pollini. I have a few of his recordings so was very excited to hear an experienced musician tackle these pieces live. Unfortunately, no objective observer could fail to notice that the performance WAS littered with errors and WAS overpedalled and that Pollini WAS overwhelmed by the pieces technically. No amount of stylistic preferences (too robotic, not precise enough - too romantic, not enough etc etc) will change those facts.

I sat there gripped, from beginning to end. It's rare for me to attend a concert of this length without the mind on occasion wandering, but not this evening: every prelude and every fugue seemed wondrously illuminating, and intellectually challenging - and by the time we got to the last six the whole thing became magically transcendent. So I was very lucky: I got my £11-worth with manifold compound interest. But I think some people do go to concerts determined to have closed minds confirmed - which would seem a foolish waste of scarce resources: one could always stay at home. And it's strange to be able to hear all these mistakes that aren't apparent to us lesser mortals. I rushed home to listen to my Richter CD - only to find it strangely disappointing after Pollini...

I'm here not to provide a sort of club solidarity with Igor - and least of all regarding the Mubarak remark, which he must defend if he can - but to ask some of you to think before you rant. Good God, you claim the opinions are wrong when you weren't even THERE? What's my reaction? Well, surprise that it would be that bad, but a willingness to check it out for myself on the next occasion (and the Pollini recitals I've heard of late haven't thrilled me). And as for closing the mind shut before going, did you click on the link and read Igor's review of Pollini's Brahms Second Concerto? 'Storytelling at its most bleak and most true': hardly the words of someone belonging to a supposed mafia of Polliniphobes. Give your responses some thought, please, as has the reviewer, if you don't want to join the ranks of the trolls..

"[N]o objective observer could fail to notice that the performance WAS littered with errors and WAS overpedalled and that Pollini WAS overwhelmed by the pieces technically." All I can say is that I must have been at a different concert. I do think there are many "critics" who simply show up to be negative. No one could possibly read your criticism as "objective" - that is extraordinarily arrogant Paul. Did you have any intention of an open minded, inquisitive and relaxed evening?

On the ‘closed mind’ issue, David, I didn’t necessarily attribute that quality to the reviewer, though in this context you are justified in taking it that way. But a reviewer who before the concert knows how Pollini always is - “The musical fascism was hardly surprising. It's how Pollini has always been. I remember now why I'd binned so many of his CDs.”… “As always with Pollini, one imagined that polemics were driving this interpretation, in particular a teleological desire to find the 20th century in the 18th.” - doesn’t really give much evidence of an open mind – and when I follow the link you recommend I find the full quotation: “Ignore Pollini's bungled parallel runs and enforced ritardandos, this was storytelling at its most bleak and most true”. But stepping back a bit, the passion and venom which this concert has provoked at the very least demonstrates the power of the performance – a totally negative power in the view of some; a life-enhancing positive power in the view of others. The reviewer is so excited by the concert, and so offended, that he feels called upon to employ a whole barrage of political and military metaphor – “reign of terror” “the jackboot of his mind” “musical fascism” “Calvinist subservience to the text.” “Pollini was also at war. With his and our humanity.” If indeed Pollini had been at war with humanity, via Bach, that really would have been a magnificent concert to have attended; after all, art – unlike political movements and leaders – is permitted to use nihilism creatively, and we would have each of us gone home ‘a sadder and a wiser man’. I didn’t feel my humanity under attack but I do feel under attack by reviews such as this one: the use of ‘jackboot’ and ‘fascism’ seems particularly inappropriate to Pollini: after all, there’s no bombast and strutting display, and the terms ‘jackboot’ and ‘fascism’ carry with them implications of massive atrocity, oppression, racism, concentration camps, slaughter of millions etc., that the metaphorical burden would seem incommensurate with the apparently unassuming man who played the piano on the stage of the Festival Hall on Friday. And that I enjoyed the concert immensely would have me in the eyes of the reviewer applauding a display commensurate in some way with the activities of the Nazis, Mussolini, the worst aberrations of the French Revolution and Calvin. I think there must be ways of being very critical of a performance one decides not to like without profligate recourse to terms from the political and social extremes, the value of whose currency we need to preserve for when something truly evil is on the horizon. Like David I haven’t been all that impressed by some Pollini performances of the past decade, and had stopped going. And I’m not really very impressed by this marketing gambit – ‘The Pollini Project’. (‘Projects’ now seem to be all the rage: Barenboim brings ‘The Bruckner Project’ to London next year) But in the end I bought a last minute ticket for a couple of the concerts, and am now very glad that I did. I was particularly gratified that there was no standing ovation before any note had been played (as greeted Barenboim’s Beethoven Sonata cycle), and not a lot of the celebrity fuss – apart from an immense queue of autograph seekers post concert – so one could be quite calm at the start. I was right at the back of the gallery, and the sound was fine, ravishing. I didn’t see anyone look at their watch, nor notice anyone fail to return after the interval – though I did hear a legion of unsuppressed bronchitics. So what is the root of the problem? Why is it some of us have loved and drawn sustenance from this concert, and some hated it? Presumably each camp thinks the others are deluded and even the question of Pollini’s technical and virtuosic capabilities, which via recordings one would think could be subject to some element of objective discussion, leads to people hearing mistakes and scrambles in the same passage where others hear precision and dexterity. I can’t really discuss much with those who think he can’t play, that he’s incompetent, but those who dislike the interpretation are more interesting in that their complaint is that he’s cold, soulless, doesn’t dance, unengaging. Although they’re not precisely the adjectives I would use, they are not necessarily vices, and for me they allow a space for the intellect to function in observing the music. And then, not always, but sometimes, some dialectical magic happens: the intellectual becomes the emotional/spiritual. That switch did click, for me, especially during the second half of Friday night’s concert, but it seems it left some others cold - and very angry.

Mr Toronyi-Lalic, Your response to your critics is disturbing. It is one thing to criticise Pollini for his restraint and his coolness. Of course that's not an original insight, but in your case it appears to be deeply felt (since you remark that you've 'binned' many of his recordings). It would be well within the bounds of criticism to make the case that Pollini's approach was ill-suited to Bach and to offer concrete examples. And indeed, many would agree with you that his performance was over-pedaled in places and his articulation was often muddy. But the tone of your review seems to betray such an astonishing degree of hostility that one wonders what you're trying to prove. You speak of Pollini's polemical approach - what of your own? The language of fascism, torture and the like, offered, you tell us 'for metaphorical effect', is not the language of a critic that is seeking to engage honestly with a performance, but one bent on scoring cheap points and setting up imaginary battles (Pollini versus Dudamel? These are not the only paths for musical performance) in the crudest possible manner. Your response, I am sorry to say, betrays considerable confusion. Pollini is at war with his own humanity? What psychological insights do you possess to be able to make that assessment? Your comparison with Mubarak, which you repeat in your response, is inexcusable.

The response by the reviewer is as equally unbalanced and hysterical as his review. You really should get out more. Oh, and thanks for the clarification. I see, it was metaphor. That's OK then.

Clearly people have been offended by this review. I look quizzically upon them - and wonder what the offense really was - but apologise nonetheless. I also wonder what do those who have been offended think I was saying? When I write that Mubarak has nothing on Pollini's reign of terror do they seriously believe that I think that Mubarak's reign of terror is less of a menace than Pollini's? That I can make no distinction between a bit of overpedalling and the slaughter of life? If not - and I hope not - the offense evaporates. The Mubarak line is an analogy. A pungent analogy to fit the pungency of Pollini's crime (a metaphor, note; I am not saying that Pollini is a criminal). An analogy is "the comparison of two things, typically on the basis of their structure" - and rarely their content - "for the purpose of explanation or clarification". It is a partial similarity. Pollini's inhumanity in this performance in his rejection of the musical traditions that have been built up over centuries is similar in part to Mubarak's inhumanity in his rejection of democratic desires. Pollini is the Mubarak of pianism. I'm not saying that Pollini is Mubarak - or that Mubarak is Pollini - just that, within the confines of piano-playing, Pollini represents an extreme faction, equivalent, but not equal, to Mubarak's within politics. I have much more time for the argument that suggests that my review is as polemical as I contend that Pollini's performance was. Yet I would argue that the only way to fight polemic is with further polemic - and Pollini's polemic needs to be fought.

I am a graduate student studying English literature, and so reading criticism is one of my obligations. I have also been interested in Maurizio Pollini for about a decade, since I was a teenager, and have read most of the extant writing about him in the languages I know. I have read much bad criticism, and some notably thoughtless reviews of Maurizio Pollini; but this is perhaps the least reflective and the least generous response to Mr. Pollini I know. Given Mr. Pollini's known political commitments, it is shocking to find him compared to Hosni Mubarak. This review says more about the vulgarity of Igor Toronyi-Lalic's sensibility than it does about Maurizio Pollini. It is an extreme example of a failing common to criticism: the critic's mistaking of his own limitations and resentment for attributes of his object.

Maurizio Pollini equated with Hosni Mubarak? What appalling, off-the-wall claptrap! Bizarre polemics like this have no place in the appraisal of a deeply sincere, humane artist like Pollini, however far his performance might depart from a critic's preferences. Add to that the queasy spectacle of the writer attempting later to justify his intemperance by asserting that Pollini is at war with himself and humanity, and the reader has arrived at new heights of folly and delusion. It seems the actual performance was merely a Rorschach upon which the reviewer couldn't help but project his own confusion and rage. I earnestly request that this reviewer be kept away from future Pollini recitals, mainly for the sake of his own mental health. The jackboot of his mind, indeed.

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