Review: Maurizio Pollini with the New York Philharmonic

Friday, October 16 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Berlioz, Le corsaire Overture (1844)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)

Even for New York City, this week is quite special in its classical music offerings.  On the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall, tonight a piano legend returns to the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 20 years with the concerto that launched his career: Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin’s 1st, a can’t-miss event for which I broke my concert budget and was so excited about all week.

So imagine my panic when the 1 train I was on stopped for nearly 10 minutes between 34th and 42nd, threatening to make me late.  I tried to relax by reminding myself that it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I missed the opening Berlioz overture.  Chopin’s legacy–partially French as it is–aside, the French canon doesn’t do much for me.  The notes are nice individually, but the whole usually feels less than the sum of the parts; I can’t quite pinpoint why.  Le corsaire Overture, the inspiration of which was either James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover or Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire (either way, a writer of the Anglosphere, how un-French), is an especially poor match for the New York Philharmonic due to the piece’s brass highlights and the orchestra’s one-note, loud-for-loud’s-sake, brass section.

But, that’s OK, I’m certain nobody bought a ticket to the concert just to hear the orchestra play Berlioz.  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, while quite possibly the most over the top Romantic piece I have ever heard, ingeniously retells the story of the star-crossed lovers in less than 20 minutes, something that takes Prokofiev two and a half hours and with ballet dancers.  In Tchaikovsky’s version, the piece starts with the dignified but foreboding friar’s theme, which gives away gradually to the agitated warring between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The action slows with the love theme, played separately by the English horn (Romeo) and the flute (Juliet).  After more battles, the love theme returns, this time loudly and with the English horn and flute intertwined, signaling that the lovers have consummated their marriage.  Consummation of love is of course punishable by death, which is promptly marked with two cymbal crashes.  A final battle ensues, followed by a sweet homage by the woodwinds to their fallen comrades.  I can’t say that the Philharmonic added anything to either my interpretation or enjoyment of the piece, but it was a solid performance.

After the intermission we arrive at the main event: Pollini playing Chopin.  Chopin’s 1st piano concerto is expressive, nuanced, equal parts strength and vulnerability, joy and melancholy, and far far beyond the composer’s 20 years at the time of its premier.  It’s also an exception among my favorite piano concertos in that it is the only piece in which I can discern no structure, by which I mean that for as many times as I’ve listened to the piece (weekly if not daily), if you played me an excerpt, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which movement it is from.  All of the themes seem to blend together into something so blissfully that it shuts down my analytic functions completely.  My favorite recording is the one by Krystian Zimerman with the Polish Festival Orchestra, which explores every nuance of the music and enhances whichever sensitive mood I might be in, furthering a tendency of indulging in sadness as a means to perceive beauty.

Maurizio Pollini is one of the most lauded Chopin interpreters of all time, and he had played this concerto on his way to winning the 1960 Chopin Competition.  Most world-famous musicians, as technically fluid as they must be, also–by and for design of their fame–cultivate a somewhat flashy brand in personality or demeanor.  Pollini is the complete opposite.  His upper body exhibits minimal movement, and his playing is crisp and unembellished.  In the age of Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili, this is refreshing.  On the other hand, I really feel that Chopin’s 1st is a piece that allows for some indulgence, and Pollini’s detached style, combined with a few missed notes, did not do it full justice.  (The sacrilege!)  Compared to the Zimmerman version, Pollini’s performance, though probably temporally perfect, lacked warmth and emotion, and the piano floated above the orchestra instead of within it.  This hardly mattered to the audience though.  After the pianist played his last note, the orchestra still had a few seconds left, but the audience was already clapping.  A standing ovation for maestro lasted a full five minutes, and the New York crowd only reluctantly dispersed when it was clear that he was not going to give an encore.  After all, one can always nitpick, but Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin is still darn close to as good as music gets.