We had been waiting for a while for the return of the much loved Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini.
But such is the demand for this outstanding artist that the South Bank Center had to lure him here with an only befitting programming position as the last to star in its winter International Piano series. He was in amazing company with Igor Levit, Boris Giltburg, and Cristina Ortiz to name but a few; the series was brimming with talented and experienced artists. This is what the South Bank Center excel at: programming of excellence. But the long queue at the RFH desk on the 18th Feb was for the septuagarian who had charmed us all before with his 'Pollini Project' at the RFH. When he cancelled his concerts due to ill health, many feared we’d never see him again. And here he was back in London.
Tonight he was going to share with us more of his Chopin, from Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 to the Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, the well-known Funeral March. Polling’s craft is astounding. Total clarity of vision, paired with such clean expression, it takes your breath away. Arthur Rubinstein, the genius pianist who praised the young Pollini, would have felt confirmed in his judgement. If sometimes passion seemed to be lacking with all this finesse and elegance, that is a small price to pay for such gorgeous sounds. In the second part of the programme, Claude Debussy’s Preludes book 1, Pollini allowed himself more latitude. Like the composer, he happily explored the intermingling of high and low art, the result venturing into a far more modern, ambiguous world of sound. The free-floating whole-tone scale gave way to pentatonicism, a device Debussy loved to use when trying to evoke the sounds of the East. In the Beaudelaire poem Debussy transposes, we are asked to hear the perfume through sound; such a very modern idea! And we can follow Pollini subtly trying to let us do just that: hear and smell through sound. Of course, we now know that there are people who naturally do this, they hear colours and smell sound, but at the time, it was remarkably revolutionary thinking from Debussy.
But the most wonderful surprise happened at the very end of the concert, when Pollini seemed to switch into a totally different gear. All his passion for music seemed now to be overflowing and pouring down into the audience, who responded with huge warmth and gratitude. After the third encore, no one was sitting anymore, and the Royal Festival Hall was a sea of smiling, happy people, all willing Pollini to give us one more token of his astounding gift. He did, and it was an evening no one will forget soon.