Claudio Arrau



Maurizio Pollini


The great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau once said that in the metaphysical language of the late Beethoven sonatas "trills become a trembling of the soul".

He was also fond of reminding his listeners that Beethoven, in his existential struggle, was a contemporary figure. For him, Beethoven stood for the "spirit of humanity victorious".

"Beethoven's message of endless struggle concluding in the victory of renewal and spiritual rebirth, speaks to us and to young people today with a force that is particularly relevant to our times. In the sense that his life was an existential fight for survival, Beethoven is our contemporary. In the sense that he mastered both his life and his art to reach the ultimate heights of creation and transfiguration, he will last as long as the human spirit prevails upon the earth," he wrote in an essay to accompany his first series of Beethoven sonatas.

Arrau was left grasping for words to describe the power of Beethoven to affect something very deep within the listener. The metaphysical, essentialist language may not be to contemporary taste but poetically such description is reaching, just as the music reaches, past what we know easily towards what we experience intuitively.

Arrau's characteristic lush, rich, fully textured pianistic sound has a type of grandeur that befits such description. If Arrau does not evoke a trembling of the soul, then he most likely will evoke a deep visceral reaction of some other kind. This seems a given from the sheer sonic power of his deep rich chords. Perhaps more than any other pianist Arrau has a distinctive recognisable sound.

This box of Arrau's second Beethoven cycle, reissued to celebrate the centenary of the pianists birth, was completed when he was in his 80s. It therefore represents a deeply reflective, deeply lived experience of these amazing pieces.

To use Arrau's own words again:

"It takes great power of empathy to understand his music. In Beethoven interpretation it is of the utmost importance to open one's self up to the intuitive forces of one's own being, to the unconscious as much as to the conscious, to relinquish the fear of committing oneself emotionally, to accept the agony of feeling which is in Beethoven."

Maurizio Pollini is a pianist of quite a different kind. Both are virtuosic wizards of keyboard technique but Pollini is spirited where Arrau rests in gravitas. Some have found fault with both: Pollini has been criticised as cold, Arrau as humourless. But both in their own way are compelling.

Pollini is certainly fierce and showy in comparison to his older colleague but also more detached. Both are deliberate and strong in their forward vision, there is due pause but never hesitation. But in comparison with Arrau, Pollini often seems too self-conscious. Arrau almost never gets in the way of his own playing.

However, having said that, there are times in Pollini's new recordings, such as in the second half of the second movement of the Appassionata, were he is so suddenly just right that it takes your breath away.

The bonus disc of live recordings of the Appassionata and Sonata 24 is Pollini at his best. Clearly playing to the audience he risks something more than he allows in the studio.

While Pollini is exciting and his sound is polished, Arrau's reflective grandeur is so much more powerful because it does not disclose itself so readily.

Marcus O'Donnell originally published in the Sydney Star Observer