Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp 101 & 106, review – a reminder of the power of Pollini

It took Maurizio Pollini more than 30 years to complete his recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon. The first instalment of that series, which appeared in 1977, was devoted to the last five sonatas, including magisterial performances of the two paired on this new release, which was recorded in Munich’s Herkulessaal in June 2021 and April this year. In the 1970s Pollini was at the height of his powers, a level that he maintained well into this century, and which has assured him a place among the greatest pianists of our time. But in the past 10 years or so his live appearances have become more erratic, with nondescript, uninvolved performances outweighing those evenings when he recaptured his old mastery.

The relatively few studio recordings Pollini has made over the past decade have proved much more consistent. His approach, whether to Beethoven or Chopin, Debussy or Schoenberg, always tended towards the analytical, and he has never been a great keyboard colourist. In his later years his playing has become even more severe, but his intellectual grip on the music has remained as secure as ever. His discs of Chopin, with the pieces grouped chronologically, for instance, were often revelatory.

All of which makes his return, in the year he turned 80, to two of the most intellectually and technically challenging works in the piano repertoire compelling listening. There’s no doubt his muscular authority in late Beethoven is as commanding as ever, even if technically the performances may not be quite as pristine and brilliant as they would have been half a century ago: there are moments in the fugal finale of Op 106 that seem congested, though that may also be because of the sheer speed at which Pollini launches into this fearsome movement. For what’s extraordinary is that, when compared with the 1977 recordings, every single movement in both sonatas is faster this time, yet there are few moments when those speeds seem excessive.

There is something slightly chilly about this pianist’s approach, and many may prefer a warmer, more human touch to these sonatas, especially in the wonderfully intimate Op 101. Yet one is always aware of the wealth of experience and understanding that is informing every bar of his playing. Throughout his long career Pollini has divided opinion, and this fine disc is a reminder that he continues to do so.