Maurizo Pollini, the great concert pianist from Milan, is shown in fine form throughout this 13 CD box set "edition" of his previously released recordings on the Deutsche Gramophone label ( celebrating his 30th year with DG ). The performances were selected by the artist himself and so retain a merit absent in some other types of repackaging "schemes".
Hardcore classical music enthusiasts are rarely short of opinions, positive or negative, about this phenomenal musician. Like his friend Pierre Boulez, he is treated in some circles in almost idolatrous fashion, in others his playing is heard as cold, aloof, and mechanistic. However, even his detractors agree that his prodigious technique is married to an equally formidable grasp of form; "rambling" pieces are framed in a convincing way. His "architectural" approach ( he is the son of an architect ) is built up through careful study and sculpting of interpretations ( background research, various editions of scores, historical contexts ), some of which take decades to reach their recorded form. For better or worse, Pollini is simply not a "lover" of the piano in the way that others are. Yet it would simplistic to dismiss him as (merely) "Apollonian", for he has reserves of passion and feeling in his playing ( especially noticeable in concert ) that other pianists of a more celebrated effusiveness lack. Nevertheless, he is justly regarded as an "intellectual" musician and his brand of seriousness can at times put a damper on the lighter elements of, for example, the earlier period Beethoven sonatas.
Pollini's concert repetoire, stretching from Bach to Stockhausen ( neither of whom he has put to wax ), is weighted toward composers of the justly esteemed Austro-Germanic legacy and those ( noticeably ) outside its direct influence are rarely heard. In fact, Pollini's well-known commitment to contemporary music is an interest firmly linked to the very core of Austro-Germanic tradition ( Luigi Nono was certainly an adventurous composer but attached in his own way to the same "musical humanism" that Pollini reveres ).
This box set "edition" features a goodly portion of Beethoven; two of Pollini's famous 1977 recordings of the "late" piano sonatas ( including his highly touted "Hammerklavier" ) as well as versions of Concertos 3, 4 & 5. Regarding the mid period Beethoven, I'm not sure Pollini always takes the right approach ( the typically vacuum-packed dryness of DG's recordings doesn't help here ).
The lovely Mozart Concerto ( #23 ) done with Karl Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic is included as is Pollini's ( second ) recording of the titanic Brahms Concerto #1 (Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra ).
While the celebrated performance of the late Schubert sonata in A Major is included I was sorry to see that its "companion" in C Minor ( D 958 ) was omitted in favor of shorter pieces. Any late piece by Schubert bears some admiration, but this choice was an oversight, whether by artist or record company ( time constraints are not an excuse as the identical pairing was used by DG some years ago ).
It's a well-known fact that Pollini came to prominence in 1960 by winning the Chopin competition in Warsaw. He has recorded a lot of Chopin's oeuvre but only one disc is devoted to the Polish composer in this box set; the Etudes ( op.25 ) are nice choice coupled with a fiery performance ( c 1985 ) of the 2nd Sonata.
His early ( 1973 ) recording of Schumann's greatest piano piece ( "Fantasy" ) is coupled with a 1989 recording of the Liszt Sonata (a natural choice considering each composer dedicated his work to the other ). Both are astounding performances; Pollini has Schumann's "measure" and his rendition of the Liszt gives lie to the notion that he is cold and mechanistic.
Moving into the 20th century repertoire, I find the Debussy Etudes ( Books I & II ) admirable but overly "careful" in places. His interpretation of the same works in concert has a depth that didn't quite make it to this recording. The coupling with Boulez' 2nd Piano Sonata ( 1948 ) demonstrates a link between the two composers that is actually more evident in the recent work of the celebrated French composer/conductor. This early piece in Boulez' output, ferocious and influential as it was, is not a favorite of mine ( I much prefer the roughly contemporaneous Sonata of the lesser known Jean Barraque ) but Pollini's rendition is absolutely astonishing in its virtuosity.
The Bartok Concertos 1&2 with Abbado and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ( the only time Pollini has recorded with an American orchestra ) are simply dynamite; the CSO is uniformly excellent and Pollini tears through the fearsome passages with volcanic energy. The Stravinsky piano version of "Petrouchka" is included on this disc.
The edition has a disc dedicated to the "Second Viennese School", featuring all of Schoenberg's solo output ( 1974 recordings ) along with a tightly controlled version ( Abbado/BPO ) of the Austrian composer's masterful "Piano Concerto" ( 1942 ). Anton Webern's "Piano Variations" round out the disc ( unfortunately, no Berg Sonata ).
Finally, a disc devoted to the pianist's late friend Luigi Nono (1924-1990). The 13 minute "Sofferte onde serene" ( 1976 ), dedicated to Pollini, is a fascinating piece for piano ( "live" and pre-recorded ) with tape. It would be an understatement to say that I am unconvinced by the "manifesto" nature of the other work on this disc; I admire Nono's music in spite of my disagreements with his political beliefs.
An addendum to the set are two previously unreleased ( on DG ) performances: a 1960 recording of Chopin's "Concerto #1" ( Warsaw Philharmonic ) and a 1974 recording of the Schumann Concerto with von Karajan and the BPO.
Each CD features a black and white photo of Pollini with liner notes from various critics.