Maurizio Pollini won the International Frédéric Chopin Competition at the age of eighteen and went on to become one of the great pianists of his generation. Known for his technique and transparency at the keyboard, he champions a broad range of repertoire and, as I learned in conversation, a scholarly approach to each composer within it.
I spoke to Pollini in early May, the afternoon before one of his three Chopin programs at Carnegie Hall. We discussed classical music over the blare of smooth jazz in a hotel café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. After my first question, the Italian hesitated and asked if we might wait until his espresso arrived. When it did, he downed it in a sip, reflected for a moment, and said, “Okay. Let’s begin.”
This is a Chopin year. I imagine that relationships with composers change over time, and I wonder how your relationship with Chopin has changed since your competition year?
My competition year in Warsaw was many years ago, in ’60. This was the most important moment in the beginning of my relationship with Chopin. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Arthur Rubinstein, who was on the jury of the competition and was very kind to me. And I was able to hear him play—he did some marvelous concerts there. From this began a friendship that continued for many years. I saw him rather frequently in Paris and when he went to Italy to give concerts but you are asking about my relationship to Chopin.
The contract with this extraordinary composer for the piano has been there for all my life; I have never stopped playing Chopin. He is a unique composer, you see. He is somebody who wrote for the piano perhaps better than anyone else, who invented a marvelous sonority for the instrument, who has a style of playing which has little relation to the style of other musicians. The way you play Chopin is much different from Liszt, for instance. Chopin has a particularly personal style, and what is more important is the magical effect of his sonorities, the depth of his music .His late work shows such density, a master of composition. My relationship with Chopin has become, if possible, closer and closer to his music as time passes—I have become more and more enthusiastic. He’s a miracle.
Also during this centenary it would be a very good thing to remember Robert Schumann, who is a composer of about the same level of Chopin and with so many works that are not often played. This could be the right moment to make them better known to listeners. With Chopin, there is less to do on this front because he practically wrote only masterpieces, in a sense. Those works with an opus number—he accepted these—are all masterpieces. But there are masterpieces among the works Chopin neglected because he was extremely severe, so strict with himself.
What is special for you about Schumann?
Undoubtedly another miracle, Schumann. It is surprising that some of the greatest interpreters of Chopin
[Pianist-conductor Alfred] Cortot has said that he appreciated the music of Schumann more than that of Chopin. Arthur Rubinstein has said that Schumann might have been even greater than Chopin. I don’t agree [chuckles], we should be clear. But I think that Schumann undoubtedly remains a miracle of the nineteenth century and it is important to explore his production and his seldom-played works.
You have mentioned Rubinstein twice now already. What did you learn from him? Was he a mentor for you?
[Smiles.] I learned from him because he was an example of how Chopin should be played. I always referred to Rubinstein as an ideal, together with Cortot—completely different from Rubinstein, but also extremely convincing and great. I learned from Rubinstein by listening to him, not through conversation. I remember only—if there was a lesson he was meant to give me in one minute—him putting his finger on my shoulder during the competition as I played, saying, ‘I play only with the weight of the arm, yet I am never tired.’ The finger was so heavy! It was a very short lesson about how to play the piano.
He showed you where your power should come from?
From your whole body, in effect. Obviously, the shoulder shouldn’t stay up.
During your respite from performance following the Chopin competition, when you focused on expanding your repertoire, it has been said that you struggled with perfectionism. Is that true?
No [scoffs]. I never gave any importance to—in fact, I saw and see very well the limited aspect of—a performance devoid of errors. This means absolutely nothing. I have struggled all my life for another thing: expressing the character of the composer, the character of the music. This has always been a more important goal—from then to now this has been a constant: To try to understand and convey the composer’s intention.
This period of repertory expansion wasn’t limited to Beethoven and Schumann but also included Berio and Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen.
These came gradually.
What drew you to these more modern voices?