Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.45
Chopin: Ballade in F Major/A minor, Op.38
Chopin: Two Nocturnes, Op.27
Chopin: Scherzo No.3
Chopin: Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op.53
Debussy: Etudes, Book II
Boulez: Piano Sonata No.2
Debussy: “La Cathedrale engloutie” from Preludes, Book I
Chopin: Etude in C minor, Op.10, No.12 “Revolutionary”
Chopin: Ballade in G minor, Op.23
Liszt: Etude No.11 in D-flat minor
Chopin: Prelude in D-Flat Major, Op.23, No.15
I lazed around the hotel room on Sunday morning and read the New York Times with some coffee and an egg-n-cheese on a roll. Later, I met up with Lizzy for lunch at the "original" Ray’s Pizza for a couple slices. Then, I jumped in a cab up to 57th street to Carnegie Hall to hear Maurizio Pollini play a matinee recital of “French” piano music.
It turned out that Mr. Pollini would be signing CDs after the performance, so I bought one in the lobby: The Pollini Edition [vol.9](Deutsche Grammophon) which features the Debussy Etudes and the Boulez Sonata No.2. I wasn’t planning to wait in any huge line to have him sign it, but at only $10.00 (cash only!), it was certainly a nice souvenir of the program I was about to hear.
And what a program it was!
I had never been in the “big hall” at Carnegie, and it was everything I had imagined. Even from the very last row of the parquet, the sound was reverberant yet detailed and perfectly clear. The first half was all Chopin, opening with the hushed and delicate C# minor Prelude, Op.45, building up to the fiery Scherzo No. 3 and the grandly heroic Polonaise, Op.53. Pollini’s musicianship is truly breathtaking. Every voice was perfectly placed, even within the densest textures. The virtuosic passagework was effortless and suave, yet never showy or glib. Mr. Pollini’s formidable technique was always conscientiously deployed in service of the music. It’s tempting for me to say that his piano playing was virtually flawless.
But, you know, Chopin is nice and all, but the second half was going to be something else altogether.
The Etudes are not my favorite works for piano by Debussy since as they are essentially didactic and pedagogic by nature - artful calisthenics so to speak. Nevertheless, it was mesmerizing to watch Mr. Pollini execute the hairpin turns of this music with such an easy charm. And, truth to tell, Debussy’s harmonic language is very interesting - even weirdly dissonant in parts. Not so far, really, from Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata.
OK, maybe not. As Mr. Pollini exited the stage, I said to my friend, “Watch them run to the exits - here comes the Boulez!” Sure enough, a dozen or so people within the immediate vicinity hurriedly gathered their things and left. But, surprisingly (at least to me), the vast majority sat expectantly in their seats as the music stand and score was placed upon the piano and a page-turner’s chair was brought on stage.
Of course, it goes without saying that Mr. Pollini played the rest of this program from memory. It is expected – demanded - that pianists perform from memory. No matter how impressive a feat this might be, it is a 19th Century affectation that I have profound problems with: Isn’t it enough that the pianist can actually play these impossibly demanding pieces? To force the pianist play from memory reduces the performance to a circus act – lots of thrills, but what does it have to do with music? Sure, internalizing the music to such a degree should (conceivably) increase the level of musical refinement in any given performance, but the pressure to memorize and regurgitate may also serve to undermine the music itself – not mention that the occasional memory gaffe is all but inevitable. To that end, I had wondered if Mr. Pollini would play the Boulez Sonata from memory – it is, after all, a massive, thorny, and extremely complex work. Frankly, I was pleased to see him bring out the score – all the better, I believe, to deliver a secure performance and further legitimize the presence of the score in modern concert practice.
And it was magnificent.
Mr. Pollini performed this extremely gnarly piece with the same graceful aplomb as the earlier Chopin and Debussy. Further, he managed to clearly delineate the connection to late-Beethovenian pianism that lies at the root of Boulez’s conception. Make no mistake: This is “difficult music” circa. 1949 – atonal/twelve-tone (yet not quite total serialism) and hugely complicated, irregular rhythms. But then, at crucial moments, quasi-tonal configurations arise from the din and (almost) nostalgically recall the push-pull of tonality and the fragile flower of consonance. The sonata seeks to exploit the extreme registers and the innately percussive elements of the piano while also demanding a convincingly elegant – almost cantabile -presentation of themes and counter-themes. Indeed, this music is a supreme challenge for both the performer and the audience. And, so, sure enough, a few more people left between each movement, but those of us that remained (and it was a mostly sold-out hall) were utterly transfixed. When it was all over, the audience erupted into a heartfelt standing ovation. Mr. Pollini himself seemed genuinely moved by the response.
Debussy’s “La Cathedrale engloutie” was a fittingly gentle encore – a reflective and quiet meditation on the piano’s bell-like resonance and a return to the hushed, meditative calm similar to the opening C# minor Prelude by Chopin. As he exited the stage, I thought to myself: That was one of the most spectacular concerts I’ve ever witnessed.
But, then something truly extraordinary happened: While many people promptly left the hall (many of them, I’m sure, getting in line for the CD signing to follow), the majority of the audience continued to clap and loudly cheer. Truly, Maurizio Pollini is a rock star of the classical world. He returned to the stage, bowed again and sat down to play another encore – the flashy “Revolutionary” Etude by Chopin which was greeted with more standing, clapping and cheering… and another curtain call… and another…Well, as you can see, he went on to play a total of five (5) encores – thirty minutes of music! The audience simply did not want him to stop, but the houselights finally – quickly - came up as if to say, “That’s enough. It’s time for Mr. Pollini to sign CDs. We have the contract right here…”
I peeked my head into the signing space only to realize that it would take several hours (at least!) to (maybe) have Mr. Pollini sign my CD, and it would not be worth it (for either of us). These people who had crowded into this room may have taken away his autograph, but I got to see him play five (5!) encores. I do believe that this overwhelming generosity was a reward for those of us who managed to sit through the Boulez – and like it. Mr. Pollini has remarked: “It’s the performers’ absolute responsibility to put new music in their programmes.” It was a blessing to be able to hear this rarely played music performed with such superlative style and passion.
Allan Kozinn’s review of this concert appeared in the New York Times on May 1, 2007.
Standing outside the hall, I noticed a middle-aged (but not quite matronly) woman take what looked like a skateboard out of her bag. She quickly unfolded it into a little two-wheeled scooter. I said to my friend, “That looks like a pretty good way to get around town.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh, it is!” and took off down 57th Street. A classic New York City moment.
I met up with Lizzy back at the hotel and, after a stroll through Washington Square Park, we headed up to 14th Street and 7th Avenue to Gavroche for one last fine-dining-in-New York experience. Gavroche may be a little funky and it may be a little out of the way, but it was fabulous. We started out by sharing a hefty terrine of steamed mussels in a tangy tomato, olives, and garlic sauce. My rack of lamb was superb and Lizzy enjoyed the succulent fish special. The dishes were artfully prepared yet hearty and comforting and the service was attentive yet unhurried and relaxed. We would definitely recommend Gavroche to anyone who loves traditional French cuisine without a lot of fuss.
While we were savoring a glass of porto, I noticed two men enter the restaurant wearing enormous cowboy hats. Could they be some more visitors from Nashville? No! - for as we were leaving, I could overhear them talking animatedly in French. How interesting! Apparently, we had enjoyed not only a very delicious, but truly authentic, French meal. Magnifique!
Now that I had finally started to get used to the congestion and manic pace of New York City, it was – alas - time to leave. The next morning, we headed to the airport and back to our quiet cabin in the woods. It was more than a little sad to leave such an amazing city, but we were also glad to be home. As I remarked previously, I really have become a “country mouse.” Still, it’s nice to know that New York is just a plane-ride away…maybe we’ll go back again this time next year.