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Vladimir Ashkenazy/ Maurizio Pollini : "Chopin - Etudes op. 10 & 25"

img  Tobias

Introducing Maurizio Pollini's 1972 recording of Chopin's etudes, Karl Schumann refers to them as the „Magna Charta of romantic Piano technique“. The validity of the historical comparison aside, this statement re-raises the question whether they should „merely“ be considered a devilishly difficult collection of finger exercises, as fully-fledged compositions or, as Schumann appears to suggest, as an intricately crafted combination of both. Chopin's tragically truncated life offers at best hints at an answer and the fact that his entire oeuvre is, anyway, marked by the simultaneity of explicit virtuosity and intimate expression doesn't exactly make things easier. Over the years, therefore, it has been up to the artists to offer responses through ideas, interpretations and, whenever the moment seemed opportune, interviews. Even though the by now vast back catalogue of studio albums dedicated to these two cycles of twelve tracks (opus 10 and 25) has greatly increased insight into Chopin's motives and into the works themselves, both their views and the audience's response to them have occasionally differed significantly almost by default.

When Pollini emerged as a recording artist shortly before this album was published, he had gone through a long and much-publicised phase of transformation. The 18-year old boy who had stunned the world at the 1960 Chopin competition had gone on a journey through the land of contemporary composition and come out a different man. His doors of perception had been cleansed by immersing himself in Boulez and Stockhausen, his approach dictated more strongly than ever by a desire for clarity, control, precision and purity. The recording contract he signed with Deutsche Grammophon at the time would last for more than 30 years and see him go on to play Nono and Schoenberg alongside Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. His very first full-length for the German record company combined Stravinsky's „Petrushka“, Webern's „Variations for Piano op. 27“ , Boulez' „Piano Sonata No. 2“ as well as Prokofiev's „Piano Sonata No. 7“ and is now considered a milestone. The same can be said for his „Etudes“, released barely a year later and featuring a cover motive which seemed an exact vertical mirroring of the Stravinsky-disc. Public opinion would, however, remain divided until the present day.

There was no doubt about the technical abilities of Pollini. His fingers laugh in the face of rhythmical complexities, fulminating arpeggios and galaxies of notes which the performer needs to navigate through at Warp-speed. Rather, his „sound“ turned out to be the bone of contention. What was formerly supposed to be „romantic“ now sounded „cool“ and analytically disfigured to the ears of many. Pollini had taken his experience from interpreting the Avantgarde and transferred them to the 19th century – a daring, dauntless and, at least to the conservative elite, outrageous move. The divisive mystique of this recording has definitely not worn off over the years. A casual glance at some discussions on internet forums and Online retailers proves the ongoing controversy surrounding his performance. And yet, to the uninitiated, it is at times hard to discern what the negative energy is all about.

It is true that his timbre indeed has a metallic ring to it, almost as if he were playing on a Piano made of marble. He also emphasises the structure of the pieces, instead of wallowing in a sea of resonance and reverb. And yet, characterising his performance as uninvolved and non-musical appears absurd. Pollini makes highly effective use of dynamics, hammering down the phrases in the forte-sections only to die down to almost complete silence on another occasion. His paint-box is different for every single piece, as is his focus and approach to rhythmics and texture. Both series are presented as  ambient roller coaster rides, as a succession of contrasting emotional portraits. Thanks to this tendency, the inner tension of the works becomes apparent: Light and darkness, euphoria and depression, comfort and melancholia are all different sides of the same coin here. Nothing is left to chance. In its meticulous precision, the music relentlessly pushes forward towards a triumphant resolution at the end of the tunnel.

It took Vladimir Ashkenazy three years to counter this tour de force. The charismatic contrast with Pollini's vision can already be read from the cover image, on which the then-38-year-old former Russian „Wunderkind“ resembles a mysteriously illuminated Orthodox icon amidst an ocean of darkness. His performance is of a spiritual quality as well: Chiseled and spartanic as a monk's pallet in one moment, ethereal and astral in the next. Some things about this recording one will most likely never forget: His arpeggios sublimating into streaks of pure colour and harmony in the „Black Key Etude“, where single notes can no longer be differentiated and overtones cast rainbows on the night sky. Or the way he follows up the joyous furore of the ephemerally short etude No. 2 op. 10 with the intense calm of the third one, gradually circling its nerve for four and a half minutes, sinking deeper and deeper into a consoling tranquility.

With Ashkenazy, it is not the inner contrasts between tracks which drives the action but rather their invisible connections. His performance is a mass, a celebration of the inexplicable communion of opposites in the moment when the work and the performer become one. And yet, both he and Maurizio Pollini seem to concur that words like „finger exercises“ or „compositions“ become obsolete in this very instant. As in a meditation, the technical aspect of the pieces is nothing but a tool to arrive at a state of higher awareness. The difference may lie in the fact that Pollini appears to believe that the secrets of the music will by revealed by itself itself when this happens, while Ashkenazy only finds even more enigmas wrapped up inside a single, infinite riddle. As mentioned before, however, and regardless of your personal preferences, neither provide any definitive answers: The „Magna Charta“ remains open to interpretation to this day.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Records
Homepage: Decca Records

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