The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Valete: Pollini, Eötvös & Janis

  27th March 2024

27th March 2024

The past fortnight has brought news of the deaths of three major figures from the post-war musical scene: two pianists and a composer-conductor.

Anyone who follows the classical music headlines even slightly will have learned of the death at the age of 82 of Maurizio Pollini. He was simply one of the greatest pianists of the post-war era. Born on 5 January 1942 in Milan, he was raised in a home environment rich in culture. His father Gino was a leading modern architect, his mother Renata Melotti a pianist, and her brother Fausto a sculptor. An environment in which old and new artistic trends coexisted was crucial to developing the young Pollini’s tastes, as was the political environment of Milan in the 1950s. A fellow student was Claudio Abbado (a frequent musical collaborator over the years), and both men were committed from their youth to left-wing causes.

A series of competition successes in the late 1950s culminated in first prize at the 1960 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, drawing Pollini to wide public attention. A much-praised recording of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with Paul Kletzki and the Philharmonia Orchestra for His Master’s Voice dates from this time, but almost immediately the young pianist withdrew for a period of further musical and cultural study and reflection. For three months he was a pupil of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, which further deepened his leanings towards intellectual rigour.

By the late 1960s Pollini had signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, the first fruits of which were an album of Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka coupled with Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. It was a bold statement from an artist who maintained a commitment to 20th-century music (notably Stockhausen and Boulez) throughout his career – uniquely so among pianists of his stature and reputation. He also recorded music by Luigi Nono, including ... sofferte onde serene ... (1977), written expressly for him.

Nevertheless it was on more mainstream repertoire that his DG recordings tended to focus. His 1972 recording of Chopin’s Études immediately attained benchmark status (a 1960 recording of the same works for HMV/EMI remained unreleased until it was issued by Testament in 2011). Pollini’s traversal of Chopin’s major piano works occupied him for decades, with other highlights including sovereign readings of the Polonaises. Other discs that quickly acquired a legendary reputation were his 1976–77 accounts of Beethoven’s late sonatas, re-recorded in later years as part of his long-term complete cycle of the piano sonatas, yet never quite eclipsed.

For all his renown in Chopin and Beethoven, it was arguably in Schumann that his distinctive combination of intellectual insight, technical rigour and carefully circumscribed poetry that Pollini’s strengths were deployed most successfully. His accounts of the Études symphoniques, op.13, and the Fantasie in C major, op.17, continue to be admired among connoisseurs. Pollini’s survey of Schoenberg’s solo piano music demonstrates all his legendary coolness, but his 1976 recordings of Webern’s op.27 Variations and Boulez’s Second Sonata (the latter imbued with an impressionistic lustre alongside technical brilliance) are highpoints of his discography.

Pollini recorded concertos by  Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms many times over his long career, yet few rival his Vienna recordings of Mozart’s F major and A major Concertos, K459 and K488, under the baton of Karl Böhm (1976), or the same partnership’s glowing, critically-acclaimed performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. This was a perfect meeting of generations, marrying classical objectivity with traditional warmth. Similar qualities mark his account of Brahms’s Second Concerto, with Abbado on the podium. By any measure, 1976 was a vintage year for Pollini!

Despite a reputation for aloofness and coolness in the Classical and Romantic repertoire, Pollini enjoyed continuing adulation from audiences. Although in the last few years of his life there were many signs of frailty and faults in his fabled memory, Pollini’s long years at the pinnacle of his profession, and his uncompromising championship of the modern alongside deeply penetrating performances of the classics, ensure him a lasting place in the pantheon of great pianists.

Another musician at the forefront of post-war modernism was the Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, who has died at the age of 80. Born on 2 January 1944, he showed signs of musical talent at an early age, and was recommended by György Ligeti to study with Kodály. In 1950s and 60s Hungary, musical modernism was a forbidden fruit, but a scholarship enabled him to study in Cologne, where he studied composition with Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and also met Stockhausen. By the late 1970s Eötvös was a noted conductor of contemporary music, and at Boulez’s behest he became musical director of the IRCAM-based Ensemble InterContemporain (1979–91).

From 1985 to 1988 Eötvös was principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he gave the first performances of Harrison Birtwistle’s monumental Earth Dances. Other contemporary composers championed by him are too numerous to mention, but the list includes such great names as Hans Werner Henze and Elliott Carter. In earlier modernist works he delivered performances that combined a fastidious ear for balance with extraordinary emotive power. His recordings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle were lauded by the critics.

Eötvös’s own music combined a sharp intellect, a keen use of spatial and electronic elements, a post-modern sense of irony, and an awareness of his own central-European heritage (he was born in Transylvania, present-day Romania). Both in his more conventionally operatic works and in his wider output, there’s a sense of theatre even when he avoids more conventional narrative structures. Although only a fraction of his output has been issued internationally on disc, works like his 1998 opera Tri sestry (based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters) and violin concertos championed by the likes of Isabelle Faust, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Midori have brought his uncompromising, questing yet beguiling music to wider audiences in recent years. His death after a long illness is a major loss to the world of contemporary music.

Half a generation older than Pollini and Eötvös, the American pianist Byron Janis, who has died at the age of 95, was a protégé of Vladimir Horowitz who carved a distinctive niche in the music of Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov. What should have been an illustrious career was stalled by the onset of arthritis, which at length he overcame to some degree, although many of the works he championed early in his career were later beyond his diminished physical reach. Janis was nevertheless a much admired figure among pianophiles, and the 2023 reissue by Decca of his Mercury Masters recordings (as well as performances taped during his 1960 visit to the Soviet Union) was a timely recognition of one of the last of the great romantics among pianists, and a significant addition to the discography.

To the family and friends of all three of these musicians, our sincere condolences. Each of them leaves a rich recorded legacy.

A Few Recommended Recordings:
Beethoven - Late Piano Sonatas (Pollini) 4497402
Chopin - Etudes Op.10 & Op.25 (Pollini) 4793768
Maurizio Pollini plays Schumann 4790908
Eötvös - DoReMi, Cello Concerto Grosso, Speaking Drums ALPHA208
Eötvös - Tri sestry (Three Sisters) OC986

Photo: Maurizio Pollini (Wikimedia Commons)

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