Over the past decade, Maurizio Pollini’s recitals in Boston have brought few surprises. The Italian pianist has hewed to the canon rather than delving into the 20th-century fare he once recorded so blazingly. But as Pollini gets older — at 72 he is the dean of living pianists — the standard repertoire sounds increasingly radical under his fingers.
The first half of Pollini’s Celebrity Series recital in Symphony Hall on Sunday was given over to contrasting poles of Schumann’s art. “Kreisleriana” is perhaps the composer’s most darkly rhapsodic creation, while the Arabesque (Op. 18) is all urbane refinement.
Pollini brought the serene world of the Arabesque close to the troubled waters of “Kreisleriana.” This approach was compelling in the Arabesque’s minor-mode episodes, but the opening theme lost a touch of its stately elegance as Pollini pressed the music urgently forward.
If the Arabesque sounded uncommonly agitated, “Kreisleriana” positively combusted. Slow movements simmered with brooding heat, their ecstatic beauty wrung out in taut phrasing. Fast movements rocketed past at a tempo just this side of playable. In the volcanic seventh movement, with its surging scales and plunging arpeggios, Pollini committed to a breakneck pace and refused to compromise on Schumann’s intense technical demands. Yet even here, as he made frenzy into art, the pianist’s trademark golden-hued sonority remained transparent and warm.
Here was Schumann’s tempestuous romanticism ignited in all its challenging glory. Yet at times there was also a palpable sense of strain that I had not previously encountered in Pollini’s playing.
That sense of strain largely evaporated in the second half of the program, an all-Chopin affair. In the Second Sonata, Pollini imaginatively highlighted the affinities among the four strikingly disparate movements, bringing satisfying unity to what can seem an episodic work. The first subject of the opening movement was rendered in an eerie, submerged pianissimo; the effect was to foreshadow the Funeral March, the sonata’s famous third movement. As for the Funeral March, Pollini built it into a massive edifice with rapt, unswerving concentration. The final movement was a pianistic tour de force, played with an extraordinary shrouded sonority I have never heard any other pianist produce.
Pollini’s unique tonal palette in Chopin was again on display in the lovely Berceuse. Any memory of ungainly phrasing in the Schumann Arabesque was erased by incomparably liquid legato. Filigree passagework pearled like so many beads of oil.
The printed program came to a close with the Polonaise in A-flat Major (Op. 53). For my taste, an overabundance of sustaining pedal muddied textures, but the grandeur of Pollini’s vision was expressed with a welcome exuberance this pianist does not always summon.
Symphony Hall responded with a roaring ovation, and Pollini was, as ever, generous with his encores. The Chopin Nocturne No. 2 (Op. 27) returned us to the luminous sound world of the Berceuse before the same composer’s Third Scherzo reignited the exuberant virtuosity of the Polonaise.Seth Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.