When Maurizio Pollini first established himself internationally as one of the great pianists of the age, Schumann’s C major Fantasy was a signature work, and the recording he made of the piece in 1973 remains one of his greatest achievements on disc. He has returned to the work intermittently over the last 40 years, and played it several times since in London, though without ever quite recapturing the earlier clarity, rigour and intensity.
The Fantasy was the most substantial item in this programme of Schumann and Chopin, but again Pollini’s performance seemed only an approximation of what it once was. The formal strength is still there, and also the wonderfully unsentimental treatment of the lyrical interludes, but any sense of magisterial control in the first movement and steady accumulation of intensity in the finale were missing. The closing pages of the central march were rather approximate, just as the opening cascades of Schumann’s Op 8 Allegro were not as crisp as they might have been, but then that awkward work’s rather flashy brand of bravura has never seemed a perfect fit with Pollini’s approach.
The Chopin group generally fared better, though everything remained rather subfusc. The Polonaise-Fantaisie Op 61 was stripped of its ceremonial overtones, and became restrained and inward-looking, while the C sharp minor Scherzo seemed to go through the motions in a safety-first sort of way. Best of all were the two sharply contrasted Nocturnes of the Op 55 set, the first all F-minor introspection, the second flowing E-flat major expansiveness, while the work that Pollini had added at the beginning of the programme in memory of Pierre Boulez – Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces Op 19, had been the perfect tribute, each miniature chiselled with immense care.