Pollini makes an elegant craftsman

Maurizio Pollini (shown in New York in 2008) performed an all-Chopin program Sunday at Symphony Hall in Boston. Maurizio Pollini (shown in New York in 2008) performed an all-Chopin program Sunday at Symphony Hall in Boston. (HIROYUKI ITO for THE NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2008)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2010

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In his 16th-century “Lives of the Artists,’’ Giorgio Vasari referred to his subjects as “artefici’’ — craftsmen. That description would suit the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, who returned to Boston on Sunday with an all-Chopin Celebrity Series recital at Symphony Hall. Pollini never seems to display all of his encompassing technique at once, instead judiciously choosing whatever skill is needed to communicate the idea at hand. The result is exceptionally intelligent expression, craft so accomplished it thrills on its own terms.

Pollini’s program focused on Chopin’s more experimental, unorthodox side. For the high-contrast dialectics of the Opus 49 Fantasie, Pollini thoughtfully weighed asymmetrical phrases before whipping up dense, ringing storms. Chopin’s most far-out polonaise (Opus 44, with its drumroll roulades) showcased Pollini’s talent for control, as did the famous “Marche Funèbre’’ from Chopin’s most far-out sonata, the B Flat Minor. The rest of the sonata found Pollini’s pianistic touch in the service of formal ideas: the opening’s repeated sections renewed with subtle expansions of the palette, the finale a precipitous rumble, putting off its structural reckoning until a surprising end.

Pollini consistently varied his technical approach to emphasize big-picture concepts. The two Opus 48 Nocturnes seemed to gently bloom, a sly increase of rubato on recurring melodies recasting the design in deeper colors. The four Opus 30 Mazurkas brought four different approaches: an elegant calligraphic line for the C Minor First; abrupt shifts of sonic density mapping the back-and-forth phrases of the B Minor Second; robust energy carrying the D-Flat Major Third; careful managing of dramatic momentum parsing the expansive C-Sharp Minor Fourth. Pollini rationed his extroversion. The Opus 52 F-Minor Ballade started distant and veiled, gradually coming into sharper focus until breaking into dazzling, steely passagework. The A-flat Major Polonaise, the “Heroic,’’ was an occasion for old-school Romantic power, theatrically noble.

But even at his flashiest, Pollini still disciplined his curiosity. Two substantial encores maintained the afternoon’s advocacy. The Opus 31 B-Flat Minor Scherzo uses virtuosity as scaffolding for compositional audacity, recombining motives behind sparkling cascades; Pollini accelerated into all the music’s corners. Then there was the Opus 57 Berceuse, one of Chopin’s most obsessive works — and also one of his loveliest: over a harmonic mantra, a stream of quiet, increasingly tangled embroidery, smart and finely wrought.


At: Symphony Hall, Sunday