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Death of Maurizio Pollini, a game of excellence in the service of the piano

La Scala in Milan has announced the death of a great pianist.

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Death of Maurizio Pollini, a game of excellence in the service of the piano

La Scala in Milan has announced the death of a great pianist. If Maurizio Pollini, who has just passed away at the age of 82, sits on the Olympus of piano giants, it may not be for good reasons. Because he had a transcendent technique, people wanted to reduce him to a virtuoso, even though he was only interested in the deepest substance of music. Because his playing was sober and without pathos, he was said to be cold, even though he aimed for nothing other than an almost spiritual ideal of respect for the score. Because he loved creation, he was called modern, even though he approached contemporary music with a classical perspective. These paradoxes he was going through, this shy guy almost didn't recover!

Born on January 5, 1942, son of a Milanese architect, Maurizio Pollini trained in his hometown before trying his luck in international competitions. In Geneva, in 1957, he won a second prize, the first going to his contemporary Martha Argerich: one cannot dream of more different temperaments, between the Lombard intellectual and the instinctive Latin American, even if both will have the same distrust vis-à-vis the grayness of career and notoriety. In 1960, he won the famous first prize at the Chopin competition in Warsaw, five years before Argerich. President of the jury, the great Arthur Rubinstein says: “He already plays better than any of us! » Ambiguous statement, as Alain Lompech points out in his work The Great Pianists of the 20th Century, because it can be seen as a grandiose compliment as well as a restriction, emphasizing what fascinated the public and the jury: digital and formal perfection of his playing, at a time when this technical accuracy was not necessarily the rule among pianists.

While the most prestigious halls and orchestras opened up to him, and EMI made him record Chopin, he stopped everything for a year, to meditate, learn, nourish intellectually and spiritually a digital machine like no other. In the grip of a crisis of confidence, he consults his great elder Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, in order to bring his fingers, his brain and his heart into harmony. Some will criticize the master for having accentuated Pollini's inclination towards a certain distance. However, when we spoke to him, the words expressiveness and poetry were those that came up most often, much more than those of form or structure. “So much for the clichés,” he told us. If someone says that I am rigorous, it is a compliment. You have to be faithful to the text. But this is only a starting point for developing a free interpretation. The performers I admire, Cortot, Casals, Furtwängler, were free. »

Once back, he launched his career, without making any concessions. Close to the Italian left, he played the avant-garde music of his friend Luigi Nono, a committed communist, and performed in factories with his lifelong accomplice, Claudio Abbado, the conductor with whom he played the most. These two scholars share their ideals. Another surprising encounter: the venerable Karl Böhm, heir to the Viennese tradition, took a liking to this young musician who put the composer before his own glory. At Deutsche Grammophon, Pollini recorded Chopin but also Boulez, Beethoven, but also Schönberg. We will see him giving Pleyel a Stockhausen-Brahms program, starting with the first to force the bourgeois public to open up to modernity before returning to more comfort. He has always said it: it is not out of obligation or cerebral interest that he is attracted to modernity, it is out of pleasure! For him, there is no break between Beethoven and Boulez: “Boulez's 2nd Sonata is almost sixty years old and it sounds as if it had been composed yesterday! Despite her intellectual appearance she has a very strong sensual and expressive dimension. In his sonatas, Beethoven plays on extreme register changes, he cuts themes, fragments the speech, does not repeat himself: these biases are the basis of Boulez's sonata! »

As he grew older, his clear sound darkened somewhat, and as his fingers lost somewhat sharpness, his playing became freer, sometimes at the risk of rounding the corners. It is true that he did not recognize himself in some of his recordings from the first period, such as Chopin's Études, which he found too percussive, too articulate. What attracted him to the piano was the polyphony, which is why he also became interested in conducting, which he briefly dabbled in, even recording the opera La Donna del Lago by Rossini, before giving up this string to his bow. No doubt he was too introverted and reserved for this profession of communication that is management. His forays into chamber music, on the other hand, with the Quartetto Italiano or later the Hagen Quartet, remain exemplary and timeless.

In recent years, the health of this heavy smoker and tracker (the two undoubtedly go hand in hand) had become noticeably weakened, leading him to cancel numerous concerts in 2022 and 2023. Not to mention this sad evening in June 2023 at the Royal Festival Hall in London where, victim of a memory lapse, he went backstage to look for a score of which he was unable to assemble and turn the pages, a moment of solitude leaving the audience distraught by the dismay of this great master. But what we will remember are these annual recitals that André Furno organized at the Salle Pleyel, then at the Châtelet and at the Philharmonie de Paris, in his Piano Quatre Étoiles series which has never lived up to its name so well. A master of controlled speech, who played the classics as if they were modern, and the moderns as if they were classic.

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