A Pair of Formidable Pianists Scale Back for Mozart, Chopin

042406 article michener A Pair of Formidable Pianists  Scale Back for Mozart, Chopin“Round fingers for Mozart, flat fingers for Chopin,” my piano teacher used to say. To a 10-year-old aspiring Rubinstein, these instructions made sense—at least as they helped me produce the different “atmospheres” (as my teacher put it) of Mozart’s mischievous piano sonatas and Chopin’s moody nocturnes. Moreover, the lesson held: To this day, I can’t hear the sonatas or nocturnes without sensing whether the pianist’s round or flat fingers are doing right by the music I loved best as a child.

Another of my teacher’s axioms was “Keep it simple,” and I have been especially wary of the powerhouse virtuoso who tries to scale back his pianistic arsenal in pieces designed for the salon rather than the concert hall. Two formidable pianists who are not exactly renowned for downsizing, Mikhail Pletnev and Maurizio Pollini, have attempted to do just that in fascinating new Mozart and Chopin albums, both on Deutsche Grammophon.

Like the late Glenn Gould, Mr. Pletnev is a pianist who seems to communicate more naturally in a recording studio than in a live concert. At a piano festival in Lucerne last fall, his performances of several Mozart sonatas that also appear on his new disk were so eccentrically self-serving that he might as well have put up a sign saying “Audience Stay Out.” In the studio, with only the microphone and sound engineers as his listeners, his chilly demeanor out of sight, he traverses four Mozart sonatas (K. 330, 332, 457 and 331) with an aplomb that borders on the sublime—which is exactly where these not-so-little masterpieces hover.

The ostensible “simplicities” of Mozart’s sonatas are deceptive. Immediately ingratiating to all the senses (yes, they even have a distinctive perfume), they’re so emotionally direct, so exposed in their quicksilver exchange of feeling, that they have justly been called Don Giovanni or Così fan Tutte in miniature. As one pianist once put it to me, “In the sonatas, Mozart’s personality is so naked, you have to keep out of the way.”

Mr. Pletnev’s extraordinary flexibility of tone, refined sense of color and rhythmic alertness make him an ideal Mozartean (just as they have made him a superlative interpreter of Scarlatti and C.P.E. Bach). And unlike some of today’s most notable Mozart interpreters, he has a depth of poise that checks any tendency to play these pieces too sweetly (as can happen with András Schiff) or too brilliantly (as with Mitsuko Uchida). Mozart’s Age of Enlightenment valued thoughtful playfulness over narcissistic willfulness—a point this unpredictable Russian master makes with self-effacing eloquence.

CHOPIN HAS BEEN INTEGRAL to Maurizio Pollini’s career since he won the 1960 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Since then, his dazzling ease with the etudes, scherzos, polonaises and ballades has been the envy of other Chopinists. In those big, expansive solo pieces, Chopin created an orchestral richness that no other composer for the piano has matched. Mr. Pollini is perhaps the most orchestral of today’s pianists, producing gorgeous torrents of sound, thrillingly immediate and contained by granitic architecture.

Chopin’s 21 nocturnes (which include three posthumously published pieces) present a different challenge. The charm of these single-movement “mood” pieces is reflective rather than assertive; by turns wistful, reverent and stormy, they emerge as if in an improvisatory dream. Perhaps the best description of their haunting elusiveness comes from Franz Liszt, who attended an impromptu musical evening at Chopin’s Paris salon in the early 1830’s:

“[Chopin’s] apartment, invaded by surprise, was only lighted by some wax candles, grouped around one of Pleyel’s pianos, which he liked particularly for their slightly veiled, yet silvery sonorousness …. As the corners of the room were left in obscurity, all idea of limit was lost, so that there seemed no boundary save the darkness of space.”

Mr. Pollini’s mastery of tone and phrasing is as fastidious as ever. He achieves stunning effects in the hushed opening of the F-sharp minor nocturne and the stark bleakness of the C-sharp minor nocturne, in which he brings to mind the critic James Huneker’s description of the piece as a “corpse washed ashore on a Venetian lagoon.” But roiling just under the surface is that familiar Pollinian taste for the epic, as though he were to trying to turn an Ingres drawing into a Delacroix oil. (Why does he feel the need to break the exotic languor of the G-minor nocturne with a sudden, thunderous stretch of fortissimo chords?) The gravitas he attempts to bring to the great C-minor nocturne is labored, murky rather than mysterious and lacking that essential Chopinesque nobility.

What I find missing in Mr. Pollini’s nocturnes is a vocal style. Chopin was a great lover of the Italian bel canto operas of Rossini and Bellini. His nocturnes derive from the Italian serenade, in which a passionate melody, accompanied by a softly plucked instrument, wafts along on the night air. (For me, the most eloquent serenader of Chopin on disk is Andrzej Wasowski, a dispossessed Polish nobleman who recorded the nocturnes for the Concord label a few years before his death in 1993.) On this latest of his many magisterial Chopin recordings, Mr. Pollini’s keyboard prowess is never in doubt. But too often he doesn’t heed another piece of advice my teacher once gave me: “It’s not enough to just play the nocturnes beautifully. You must sing them.”