Play It Again, Maurizio! Pollini Makes Chopin Sing

New York has always been a funny town for encores. If a concert goes past 10 o’clock you can feel the general anxiety rising, as the Scarsdale-bound start worrying about whether they’ll make the 10:30 and the usual assortment of vulgarians prepare to bolt for the exits the moment the last note has died away. This leaves the rest of us-the never-say-never music lovers-to linger for what is often the most unforgettable part of the evening. So it was at Carnegie Hall last week when the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini crowned an already triumphant affair by playing six meaty encores by Chopin-a display of musical generosity that added up to the most memorable unlisted concert I’ve heard in years.

As the mastermind behind a series of programs entitled Perspectives: Maurizio Pollini , which was organized by Carnegie Hall to survey more than 700 years of Western music, Mr. Pollini has been the local Hercules of late. Over the past month, he has given seven highly varied programs in which composers who were sometimes centuries apart were brought together and found to have remarkable powers of mutual illumination-for example, the 16th-century high mannerist Gesualdo and the 20th-century arch-modernist Schoenberg; or the 14th-century master of sepulchral polyphony Machaut and the 20th-century master of sepulchral noise Xenakis.

Reviving the polyglot concert format that had prevailed before Liszt established the solo piano recital as an attraction in its own right in the 1840′s, many of Mr. Pollini’s programs put him in the company of string players and choral singers. Among the many revelations of his feat of millennial curatorship was the presence of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, which appeared in five of the programs. Under the sometimes balletic leadership of its director Erwin Ortner, these brilliantly trained choristers from Vienna made one long for the establishment of a virtuoso choir in New York, one capable of singing both the music of the Renaissance and the music of today with the same intensity and grace.

Mr. Pollini has long been regarded as perhaps the most self-effacing great pianist in the business, but there was no question that he was the star of this long-running show. A player of colossal strength and velocity at the keyboard, he has, in the past, looked like a deer in headlights when taking his bows. On this occasion, however, he seemed warmed by the applause, his fine Italian face breaking into smiles that were, for a man of such formidable reserve, positively beaming. Still, nobody, I think, was prepared for that explosion of encores after the sixth concert.

Mr. Pollini had just concluded the second of two lengthy and emotionally taxing masterworks of the Romantic era-the Davidsbündlertänze and Concerto Without Orchestra in F minor (Op. 14) by Schumann. He had played them with his usual Maserati-like sleekness of tone and drive, sacrificing perhaps just a little too much of the first piece’s quicksilver spirit in his determination to reveal it as the astonishing piece of formal invention that it is. There was something a little over-organized about the second piece as well; Mr. Pollini’s mower of a technique can sometimes seem like too much of a good thing, and to my ears Schumann’s seldom-played early sonata emerged more as a granitic piece of musical architecture than as a somewhat breathless young man’s reach for a heroic sense of himself. Then came those encores.

Simply to list them in the order that they were played should strike envy into the heart of every Chopin lover who wasn’t there: the Ballade No. l; the Nocturne in D flat (Op. 27); Étude, (Op. 10, No. 4); Étude (Op. 25, No. 1); Scherzo (Op. 39); Berceuse. Although the applause was immense, Mr. Pollini did not need any egging on. He has always seemed unswayed by what an audience might demand of him-he makes his listeners come to him, delivering exactly what he wants to and no more. And even if it meant keeping us in the hall until 11:30-three-and-a-half hours after the concert began-he was clearly going to give us this surprise, whether or not anyone was left to receive it.

It was Mr. Pollini’s recordings of the Études, Polonaises, and Scherzos, along with those of 20th-century path-breakers like Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez, for Deutsche Grammophon in the 70′s that established him as an international star. Many pianists, it is said, thought of giving up Chopin altogether after hearing Mr. Pollini’s magisterial, sometimes blistering, always unsentimental playing of these works, which lifted the greatest of Romantic piano composers out of the salon and put him squarely among music’s most incisive formalists.

On this occasion, Chopin emerged as a titan to rival Beethoven for his ability to probe the widest range of emotions with the most immediate and expressive means. Mr. Pollini never pauses to underscore a particular moment-he never stoops to charm-but so vivid was his playing, so sweeping was his view, that the six encores emerged as a kind of mosaic of exquisite craftsmanship whose every detail was at once visible. Mr. Pollini is one of those pianists who not only takes you through a soundscape but leads you into it, such that you feel the music like a wind across your face. And no matter how complex the journey becomes, his grasp is so strong that you know you will arrive at the destination, shaken but secure.

If Mr. Pollini’s extraordinary encores were-as I think they were-his way of saying thank you to those of us who have followed him in an unprecedented traversal of Western music that is now at its halfway point (the series resumes next fall and ends in March 2001), they may also have been a kind of rejoinder to another pianist who created a sensation in the same hall a few nights earlier. This was the fiery Argentinian Martha Argerich, whose first solo appearance in New York in nearly 20 years was announced by a front-page story in The New York Times , and whose concert Mr. Pollini attended-and heartily applauded-in the company of the most feverish horde of music lovers seen since Horowitz’s comeback recital in 1965.

It is taking nothing away from Ms. Argerich’s ability to induce delirium through what must be the most potent set of instincts in music to say that the effusiveness of the cult that has grown up around her is silly and disruptive to the enjoyment of her artistry. Although Ms. Argerich told The Times that she had been treated for melanoma, her powers were wondrously intact in a weird program that ranged from Bach (played romantically) to Chopin (sublimely), Prokofiev (wildly), Schumann (the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major , with the desperate-sounding Juilliard String Quartet), and Ravel (a two-piano arrangement of La Valse , with a Brazilian virtuoso of the first rank, Nelson Freire).

I was among those who happily joined in the delirium, but it was hard not to feel saddened by Ms. Argerich’s refusal-or perhaps inability-to deliver even one encore on her own during the half-hour of cheering that ensued. After hearing what Mr. Pollini did with his cheering a few nights later, I had another thought about what might have prompted him to give so much in his encores: “This,” he might have said to himself, “is for Martha.”