Maurizio Pollini, pianist who reveled in demanding music, dies at 82

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Maurizio Pollini, a celebrated Italian pianist whose playing combined intellectual rigor with technical mastery, died March 23 at age 82.

The death was announced by Milan’s La Scala opera house, where Mr. Pollini performed frequently. No further details were immediately made public. He lived in Milan.

During a flourishing international career spanning more than six decades, Mr. Pollini was steadily ranked among those rare musicians to whom other musicians paid close attention. Pianists regularly brought along printed scores of music by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin to Mr. Pollini’s concerts and then listened to what he had found in works they had hitherto thought familiar.

His repertory expanded beyond the standard classics, not only through early 20th century masterpieces by Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern but on to leading postwar modernists such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono, who were only a decade or two older than he was.

Mr. Pollini made the most difficult music thrilling and immediate. A 1983 recital at New York’s Lincoln Center began with Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations (hardly easy music, despite the composer’s familiarity). But most of the program’s second half was devoted to Stockhausen’s “Klavierstuck X” (1961) — 25 minutes of crashing dissonances, darting runs and roaring bass sonorities, partly played with fingerless gloves to keep from damaging the pianist’s hands — as challenging as any bravura, 19th-century virtuoso display piece by Liszt.

When it was over, the audience rushed toward the stage as though Mr. Pollini had been a long-retired rock star, wanting more and stamping and shouting for several minutes.

Nobody doubted Mr. Pollini’s mastery of the keyboard, which was all but absolute. During his best years before the public, he probably played fewer finger slips than any other pianist. But there were listeners who found his interpretations cold and hard. Harold C. Schonberg, chief music critic for the New York Times, summed up the argument against Mr. Pollini concisely in his book “The Great Pianists”: “He can do anything he wants to do at the piano, and he does everything much the same way — objectively, standing outside the music, refusing any fervent emotional commitment, just producing beautiful, well-organized, impersonal sounds.”

Harris Goldsmith, another critic who made a specialty of writing about the piano, called Mr. Pollini’s playing “almost entirely geometric” and said he was “a musical counterpart of Mondrian.”

For other listeners, Mr. Pollini was simply one of the greatest artists of his time, a musician who offered pristinely clear, clean, linear and proportionate playing, yet found fresh and unexpected beauties in anything he took on. Los Angeles Times classical music critic Daniel Cariaga once wrote that Mr. Pollini “walks onto the stage as one entering a church. Such an approach not only tends to remind us of the basic nature of art; it also makes other practitioners in the field seem frivolous.”

An intellectual, Mr. Pollini originally refused to play Bach on the piano because the composer’s music had been written for earlier keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord. When he reversed himself in the mid-1980s and began to add Bach to his programs in midcareer — and eventually recorded the first book of the “Well-Tempered Clavier” — he explained his reasoning with precision and acuity.

“The important thing with him was the structure, the idea, and not so much the sound or the instrument,” Mr. Pollini told Newsday. “And Bach himself made many, many transcriptions of his work, taking it from one instrument and giving it to another. And so I finally decided that the piano was all right.”

Maurizio Pollini was born in Milan on Jan. 5, 1942. His father was a prominent modernist architect and amateur musician. “I grew up in a house with art and artists,” he told the Guardian. “Old works and modern works coexisted together as part of life. It went without saying.”

He began to play the piano at age 5, gave his first recital when he was 11 and played a complete Milan performance of the staggeringly challenging Chopin Études in 1956. In March 1960, barely 18, he entered the sixth Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw as the youngest foreign pianist among a group of 89 contestants representing 30 countries.

The judges included Nadia Boulanger, the French conductor and pedagogue, and Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky. Arthur Rubinstein, the honorary chairman and among the most celebrated Chopin pianists of his time, spoke for his colleagues when he declared that Mr. Pollini “already plays better than any of us on the jury.”

He was signed immediately to management and a record company. But then he made two early recordings and played only a few concerts throughout Europe before withdrawing from the stage, immediately before a projected tour of the United States. “I needed some time to think, to decide the course of my life,” he told Newsday in 1988.

Mr. Pollini spent much of the next half dozen years reading, studying informally with his friend Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and playing chess. He also threw himself into radical political movements, even joining the Italian Communist Party for a while. “One is in such danger of being in a closed compartment as a concert pianist,” Mr. Pollini said in 1975. “I think an artist should keep his eyes open to what is going on around him.”

He remained committed to social causes throughout his life and was especially vocal in his criticism of right-wing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Still, he was dismayed by much that had happened in the aftermath of the 1960s. “The center and right parties were totally corrupt, but the so-called revolutionary left had a terrible influence and actually allowed the right to get more power,” he told the Guardian. “There were bombs and murders.”

For many years, Mr. Pollini did not record, preferring to present live concerts, which he played for free in Italian factories and for high prices in New York’s Carnegie Hall. “We have to live with the fact that a performance is given an artificial permanence, and that our ideas are always changing about a piece of music,” he told Gramophone magazine. “A record must be accepted as a document of a particular moment in time. I hardly ever listen to my old records.”

He returned to recording in 1971 with Deutsche Grammophon and stayed with the company for the rest of his life. He recorded most of the great solo piano works of Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann; the late sonatas of Schubert; several Mozart piano concertos as well as the two of Johannes Brahms; and albums devoted to the works of Liszt, Debussy and Schoenberg, among others.

In 1980, he won the Grammy Award in the category best classical performance — instrumental soloist or soloists (with orchestra) for “Bartók: Piano Cons. Nos. 1 & 2” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2007, he won another Grammy, for instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra), for his album of Chopin Nocturnes. In late 2016, Deutsche Grammophon brought out a set of 55 discs and DVDs to commemorate Mr. Pollini’s 75th birthday.

“My decision to include a piece in my repertoire is based on the absolute certainty that I will never grow weary of the works I’ve selected,” he told filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon in 2015.

Mr. Pollini was also particular about where he played, preferring to establish long-term associations throughout the European capitals and in the Far East, with the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals and especially at Carnegie Hall, where he played more than 100 times. In the Washington area, he appeared at the Kennedy Center and Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, Md. London listeners were famously grateful to Mr. Pollini for his public complaints about the Barbican Center’s wretched acoustics, which so upset the management that they began a process of rebuilding in the early 1980s.

For most of his career, Mr. Pollini rarely gave interviews, avoided attention offstage and always seemed ready to take flight even as he stepped out to play. He relaxed visibly in later years, to the point where he greeted audiences with what seemed a happy and welcoming grin, added encores to his concerts, and then moved to the lobby to meet and sign CDs for his listeners when the program was over.

Mr. Pollini married a former pianist, Maria Elisabetta, in 1968 and they had one son, Daniele Pollini, who also became a pianist and now records for Deutsche Grammophon (together, father and son recorded Debussy’s “En Blanc et Noir,” a piece for two pianos). They are his only immediate survivors.

Conductor and composer Boulez tried to describe Mr. Pollini for the New York Times in 1993. “He does not say very much, but he thinks quite a lot,” Boulez said. “I find him very concentrated on what he is doing. He goes into depth in the music, and is not superficial, and his attitude as a musician is exactly his attitude as a man. He is as interesting as anyone could be.”

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