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Home Culture Maurizio Pollini, sacred monster and great piano humanist, dies at 82 | Culture

Maurizio Pollini, sacred monster and great piano humanist, dies at 82 | Culture

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“On one occasion a lady asked me which trend I belonged to, those who play as it is written or those who do it as they feel.” The pianist Artur Schnabel collects this famous anecdote in his posthumous book My Life and Music (1961). His response represents the mentality of the modern pianist that Maurizio Pollini (Milan, 1942) ideally embodied: “Can I not belong to those who feel as it is written?”

The Italian pianist had a legendary skill that allowed some to hear, in the same recital, intellectual depth and others cold pyrotechnics. Despite this, he always defended the intrinsic value of composition over interpretation. A humanist of the piano and a distinguished “reader”, as portrayed by the piano historian Piero Rattalino, who died early last Saturday, March 23, in a hospital in Milan, at the age of 82.

Rattalino also defined Pollini as a “sacred monster.” A pianist of exceptional artistic quality who, in addition, exerted a considerable influence on the public. He continued to do so in recent years, despite his physical limitations and his increasing health problems. Not by chance, his recitals had been announced in Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona during the month of April, which were canceled at the end of February as a result of a serious respiratory condition.

Pollini was not simply a pianist admired and loved by the public. His influence renewed the interpretation of the great piano repertoire, from Beethoven to Debussy, and he opted for its expansion. His recitals never lacked the vindication of Schönberg’s piano music or the most innovative proposals of Boulez and Nono.

But the composer who structured his entire career as a pianist was Chopin. After studying with Carlo Lonati and Carlo Vidusso, and graduating from the Milan Conservatory, in 1960 he won the Warsaw Chopin Competition. He did it with such authority that even Arthur Rubinstein, who presided over the jury, recognized that this 18-year-old was technically superior to all of them. We can hear that mixture of poetry and perfection from the young Pollini in his 1960 recording of the Piano Concerto No. 1de Chopin (EMI/Warner Classics).

After that, Pollini chose to retire from the international scene to continue his training. He began studying Physics in Milan and attended master classes by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. In those years he strengthened his interest in the Second Vienna School and the serial music of Boulez and Stockhausen. A musical passion that brought him closer to two great friends: the director Claudio Abbado and the composer Luigi Nono. The three shared left-wing political militancy and several projects to bring contemporary music closer to the working-class public.

His international return in 1968 caused a sensation and shortly afterwards he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He began his relationship with the yellow label in 1971, recording the Three movements of Petrushkaby Stravinsky, along with the seventh sonata, by Prokofiev. And he continued with his legendary recordings of the two series of Chopin studies (1972), the Fantasy op. 17 by Schumann (1973), the complete works for piano by Schönberg (1974) and the last five sonatas of Beethoven (1975-77). But he also recorded the Second Sonata, by Boulez (1976), and made several unforgettable albums with orchestra such as the Piano Concerto No. 4by Beethoven, with Karl Böhm, in 1976, and the Concert no. 2by Bartók, with Claudio Abbado, in 1979.

All of these recordings reflect his mastery of combining technical finesse with hypnotic musical power and admirable intellectual lucidity. Many others followed, always in DG, such as Schubert’s last sonatas (1983-85), the Sonata in B minor by Liszt (1990), studies and preludes by Debussy (1993 and 1999) or Chopin’s scherzos and ballads (1999), to which he also added Brahms and Mozart and even re-recorded in his last years, as happened with the last sonatas of Beethoven. In all of them there is the same rejection of virtuosic display and an approach away from mannerisms. An approach that he applied with identical rigor to the compositions of Boulez, Manzoni, Nono, Sciarrino and Stockhausen.

Pollini also flirted with musical direction in the early 1980s. He even left a recording of The woman of the lake, by Rossini, at the Pesaro Festival (Sony Classical). But he ended up limiting himself to conducting Mozart from the keyboard. His shy and withdrawn personality kept him from the spotlight and he was not lavish in interviews. In the last one that he published in Spain the magazine Scherzo, In September 2021, he recognized what the pandemic stoppage had affected him and his need for a live concert: “an unrepeatable experience during which something special always happens.” His funeral chapel has been installed at the La Scala Theater in Milan, where he gave so many unforgettable recitals, and leaves a musical heir in his son Daniele, 45, who is also a pianist.

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