Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45
Chopin: Ballade in F Major, Op. 38
Chopin: Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47
Chopin: Four Mazurkas, Op. 33
No 1 in G-Sharp
No 2 in D Major
No 3 in C Major
No 4 in B Minor
Chopin: Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39
Debussy: Preludes, Book I
He showed up! And played divinely too! After he had flaked on his adoring New York audience, including myself, for the past couple of years, I had sworn that I would give Maurizio Pollini just one more chance. And there he was. The French-flavored program of works by Chopin and Debussy he had put together for his concert on Sunday afternoon sounded just about right, and the capacity audience in the Stern auditorium was by all accounts more than ready to enjoy some of the intellectual rigor and superb craftsmanship he's been displaying for the past four decades. The all-Chopin recital he gave in DC a few years ago had been an illuminating experience, and I had been looking forward to repeating it ever since. That's why despite all the excitement brought by the fantastic concerts I had attended the previous evenings, I had also been keeping my fingers and toes firmly crossed so that the elusive man would just show up and play already.
From the very first notes it became clear that no matter what kind of health issues had kept him away for the past two years, the distinguished Italian maestro was unquestionably back. With his customary discreet elegance and unassuming demeanor, he sat down at the piano and promptly started working his way through a recital featuring some of the most beautiful music ever written, kicking off with Chopin's lovely Prelude in C-sharp Minor.
The two ballades, in F Major and A-flat Major, that followed were much more substantial works and therefore gave Maurizio Pollini plenty of opportunities to express a wide range of emotions while he was steadily unfurling flows of woven notes with arresting easiness. Although he did exercise some of his famous - and more than once lamented - restraint, he also created moments of simple and unsurpassed beauty.
The four Mazurkas, Chopin's preferred genre, were self-contained vignettes packing a nice little punch in a short amount of time.
Despite its name, the Scherzo No 3 is much more than a light-hearted, good-natured composition and often conveys much torment and passion. Accordingly, the piano gamely let off a winning mix of chaos and peace.
Then we were on to Debussy and his bag of twelve assorted miniatures that are the Preludes of Book I. By turns delicately graceful ("Danseuses de Delphes", "Voiles"), relentlessly turbulent ("Le vent dans la plaine", "Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest"), quietly lyrical ("La fille aux cheveux de lin") or barely there ("Des pas dans la neige"), they teased the audience with their immediate attractiveness, brilliantly painted a colorful picture of their subject, and then quickly disappeared to leave room for the next one. So much to evoke, so little time. Imperturbable yet playful, Maurizio Pollini did not let off until the very last note had resonated through the hall.
The first encore, Debussy's "Pour les arpèges composés" from the Études of Book II, was a delightful surprise, but the real treat of the afternoon came next. Maybe because he was getting close to the finish line, Maurizio Pollini suddenly sounded as if had decided to throw all caution to the wind and bestowed upon us two hot-blooded, lusciously romantic favorites by Chopin, the "Revolutionary" étude and, as if the best had been saved for last, the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, for the highest pleasure of the ecstatic audience. As I was walking outside the building, still on my little cloud, I heard a French woman assertively whispers to her friend that the last two encores were "magnifiques". You can certainly say that again.