Italian virtuoso better in person than on records

There are many superior qualities that define Maurizio Pollini's piano style, but warmth is not one of them. In two different recitals -- one in Boston's Symphony Hall, the other in New York's Carnegie Hall -- the Italian virtuoso's program shared Chopin's 24 preludes, the quintessence of warm music. Thus it was with a certain trepidation that one approached these recitals.

But fears proved utterly groundless. For though there was no tremendous outpouring of tenderness, there was also no sentimentality, something too many pianists drown the music in. And finally, through Pollini, one was constantly feeling a renewed vigor in the music, discovering just how inventive and far-looking Chopin's compositional gifts were, from the most delicate of intimate landscapes to the most frightening of bold vistas.

The Boston reading was so superb, even on a piano that had its share of problems, that the New York performance seemed to lack an edge, a true commitment, in comparison.

Pollini's technique is astounding, even in this super-virtuoso age. But it is not merely that he can seem to play more notes per second and with greater clarity than is humanly possible; rather, that he has such a wide range of dynamics at his fingertips. In the 15th prelude, he began the crescendo almost from the other side of silence and built it to a shattering climax, all with full rounded tone.

His ability to sustain the energy of a musical line, weigh it with just the right amount of mood, of portent, of pianistic color, set his work altogether apart in this music.

And when barnstorming of the first order is needed, he supplies it in thrilling dimension. Those incredible fingers keep balance and detail work clear, and clean; every last note speaks with crystalline purity. One is finally awestruck, not just by the pianist, but by this composer who knew just about every musical possibility the keyboard could offer, and demands of his interpreters no less than the ability to ferret it all out.

In the case of the preludes, Pollini was far more impressive in person than in his exciting but icy DG recorded account. However, in Boston he opened his program with Schumann -- "Gesange der Fruhe" and the Fantasy in C major, op. 17. The Fantasy happens to be one of Pollini's very finest recorded performance -- a memorable statement of a magnificent work (on DG records). But whereas the final movement was utterly up to the disc -- superbly sustained, gorgeous quiet playing, with uncommon amounts of color and atmosphere -- the first two movements were rather more hectic and erratic than one had expected.

And even the "Gesange" began well, but were marred by odd touches of harsh, angular moments that seemed more suited to 20th-century music than Schumann.

This proved also to be a problem with the six Debussy preludes Pollini culled from Book 1 for the New York recital. Technically, they were beyond reproach, and now and then -- particularly in "La Cathedrale Engloutie," -- all one could ask for. But much of his Debussy lacked the brooding, haunting colors, the musical sense of otherworldly shadows and mists. Instead, Pollini offered chiseled clarity, bold etchings, steely detail, in a fashion that seemed intent on proving that this music belonged in the Schonberg modern school rather than as a unique emphatically French entity.

Quibble as one might over that, Bartok's "Out of Doors" -- the concluding selection on the New York program -- made for a dazzling display of super- virtuosity and powerhouse dynamic control. And of the various encores, the Chopin of the nocturne proved again what a magnificent, eloquent, and noble intellect this is, creating a mood of introspection, restraint, with beauty of tone.

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