Pianist Maurizio Pollini: ‘Italy has many beautiful things – but politics is not one of them’

Pianist Maurizio Pollini
Pianist Maurizio Pollini - Mathias Bothor
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This interview was originally published in March 2010. It is republished following the death of Maurizio Pollini, aged 82 

Being described as an intellectual is always a handicap for a performing artist. It’s damning with faint praise, because the implication is that the things that really matter – spontaneity and passion – are missing.

If there’s one musician who proves just how wrong-headed this opposition is between heart and brain, it’s the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini. He’s been at the very top of the tree of classical pianism for a good 40 years, and first shot to fame 10 years before that, when he won the Chopin competition in Warsaw in 1960. Nowadays, he fills concert halls wherever he plays, but it’s a refined and subtle pleasure he brings. Pollini doesn’t whip audiences to a frenzy, preferring that special kind of intensity that works by understatement. “Cool and controlled” are the epithets often pinned on him.

First impressions when I meet him are indeed cool. He lives with his wife in an exquisite wooden-floored apartment just a stone’s throw from Milan’s cathedral. The first things that hit you are the pastel-coloured modernist-looking architectural designs on every wall.

“Yes, those are by my father. He was one of the ‘Group of Seven’ architects who tried to bring modernist architecture to Italy. And look, over here,” he says, leading me into the dining room with his strangely eager, shambling gait, “this is a sculpture by my uncle.” He peers with proprietorial pride at a delicate assemblage of wire and cut metal. “Of course, it was not easy for them in the Fascist period. Mussolini was against anything modern.”

Mention of Thirties Italian politics inevitably leads to mention of Italian politics today. Pollini throws up his hands in despair. “Berlusconi is a total disaster. What is really scandalous are the new laws that are being planned, to give him presidential powers. If he wins the referendum, it will be a black day for Italy. Democracy is being killed in this country, but by small steps, so nobody notices. Italy has many beautiful and strong things, but politics is not one of them.”

To cheer him up, I bring back the conversation to imperishable, pure things – music and modernism, which clearly runs in the Pollini blood. That explains his love of Boulez and Stockhausen and other high-modernists who are out of fashion. But there’s also the other side of Pollini – the fabulously sensitive touch in Chopin, the grasp of form in Beethoven. Where did that come from?

“Well, there was a lot of music in the house. My mother sang a little and my father played the piano. And Milan was a wonderful city for culture when I was a child. All the great pianists came here, Backhaus, Walter Giesking, Rubinstein.”

It was Rubinstein who led the jury that declared Pollini the winner of the 1960 Warsaw competition, saying: “that boy can play the piano better than any of us”.

“Yes, he was very nice to me,” Pollini says, “and I remember when I was a boy he played the Chopin 2nd Concerto, he absolutely filled the hall with his sound. You know, people have this idea Chopin has to be delicate, but we don’t have to play Chopin in his own way. I love that story of Chopin listening to Liszt play the Études in a very fiery way, and afterwards he said, ‘I’d like to steal from Liszt his way of playing my music.’”

Pollini playing in Paris
Pollini playing in Paris - Karen Robinson

After 50 years, does he still find things to discover in Chopin? He looks surprised. “But it is such a privilege to play Chopin! Everything is so perfectly calculated, but to reveal the beauty of his sound is always difficult. Also, he is fascinating because he can seem very modern to me. Look at his concentration, which confused people at the time. One of his preludes was only nine bars long, but a friend persuaded him to repeat four bars, and he wrote over it, ‘to Monsieur X, who’s often right!’”

With Pollini, it’s clear that “the classics” and “modern music” aren’t opposed, they all form part of a great tradition. Next year, the Royal Festival Hall is hosting “The Pollini Project”, a five-concert series that brings together all Pollini’s favourite music, from Bach through late Beethoven and Romantics like Schumann, to modern “classics” by Boulez and Stockhausen. All “difficult” music, all allusive and complicated.

But for Pollini, that’s the secret of its appeal. “The complexity in the music makes the intensity. Think of the really complex pieces in the history of music – Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Prolation Mass by Ockeghem (a 15th-century Flemish composer), Beethoven’s Great Fugue, Boulez’s Second Sonata, which I will play in London. There is enormous emotion in this music! The complexity does not go against the emotion, they go together in the most magical way.”

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