A  Conversation  with  Bruce Duffie

It is with special pleasure that I present pianist Maurizio Pollini as part of my ongoing series of conversations.

Long-recognized as one of the greats, the Italian pianist has distinguished himself with a broad range of repertoire, numerous recordings, and carefully selected live performances.  His visits to Chicago, and indeed most cities, are rare, highly anticipated and treasured by all.

Here are a few details from his current biography...

pollini Maurizio Pollini was born in 1942.  After winning the first prize in the 1960 Warsaw Chopin Competition, he chose not to perform but to continue his studies before going on to establish an international career.  He regularly performs in the world’s major concert halls and works with the most distinguished orchestras and conductors.

He was awarded the Vienna Philharmonic’s Ehrenring in 1987, the Ernst-von-Siemens Music Prize in Munich in 1996, the A life for music – Artur Rubinstein prize in Venice in 1999 and the Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli prize in Milan in 2000.   He has devised and performed in his own concert series at the Salzburg Festival, in New York at Carnegie Hall, as well as in Paris, Tokyo and Rome, with programs including both chamber and orchestral performances and mirroring his wide musical tastes from Gesualdo and Monteverdi to the present.

Maurizio Pollini’s repertoire ranges from Bach to contemporary composers, including première performances of pieces by Nono, Manzoni and Sciarrino, as well as the complete Beethoven Sonatas.  He has recorded works from the classical, romantic and contemporary repertoire to worldwide critical acclaim. His recordings of the complete works for piano by Schoenberg, and of works by Berg, Webern, Nono, Manzoni, Boulez and Stockhausen, are a testament to his great passion for music of the 20th century.

This interview was held on one of my famous "Half Concerts."  Naturally, I enjoy many symphonies and operas each season, but when the circumstances dictate it and the time allows, I attend the first half of the performance (which would include the concerto), and then go backstage at intermission and conduct the interview with the soloist during the second half.  Such was the case when meeting Pollini in October of 1997.  He was in Chicago for the Schumann Concerto with the CSO conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and agreed to give me just a few minutes in his dressing room after his appearance.  [See my Interviews with Daniel Barenboim.]

Upbeat and flush with enthusiasm for what had just taken place on the stage at Orchestra Hall, he responded to my questions with genuine interest, and carefully considered his ideas rather than just blurting out a trite response.  Though his English was very good and we didn't need a translator, his use of phrases and choice of words were both charming and thought-provoking.  Because of this, I have left some of the grammatical imperfections in the text.  Reading it now, I can hear his voice in my mind's ear, and the wit and wisdom are clear in his phrasing.  Perhaps it's the artistic license showing through in the words, but they do convey the spontaneity and exuberance which are always there in his piano performances.

Here is that all too brief chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You have several hundred years of piano repertoire to choose from, so how do you select which pieces you will learn and get in your fingers, and get in your mind?

Maurizio Pollini:  Very simply, [chuckles] the pianist has an enormous privilege, having the biggest and greatest repertoire existing for any instrument.  It's enormous.  If you think only to the Schumann production, you can spend all your life on it.  So what I do is very simple:  I choose only works with whom I want to have a relation, a permanent relation.  Works that I always like, or which I never feel tired, and I only play this one.  The possibility is given by the enormity of the repertoire of the piano.  You can have this privilege.

BD:  But how do you know, before you really get into the piece, if you want to spend your life with it?

MP:  Well, I have to tell you that I sincerely think to know the piano repertoire, so I have a very strong idea about what I like.  And there are many, many pieces that I like very much, but perhaps with which I wouldn't like to deal in every hour of my life.

BD:  OK, so you work with these pieces, and you work with them.  Are there any that you get right to the bottom, that you get everything out of, or is there always something more?

pollini MP:  You are talking about the interpretive process, and that it is something extremely complicated.  Sometimes you have the feeling to arrive at the bottom of a piece, and you really should, when you perform a piece.  Then perhaps one year later you discover new things, because this is how the masterpieces are made.  You never end to know them and to appreciate every nuance of them.  But in any case, the process of interpretation is fascinating, fascinating.  Perhaps people don't realize how it works, because it has really two very important and distinct moments.  First, the moment of the discovering of the piece in all the details to make one work ours, which is difficult.  This moment is totally intimate that the artist does with himself, especially a soloist.  And this is a long process.  Then there is the moment of the performance in which all that you have learned and what you have discovered in a piece has to come out, but with the spontaneity.  The ideal would be with the spontaneity of an improvisation, but this improvisation is only possible, in my opinion, with a great piece of music.  Only if there is this enormous work in the back.  Otherwise it's something very superficial and it doesn't work.  So I think the great music has really necessity of these two very important moments in time.  And this is obviously very difficult.

BD:  If you come back to a piece after a number of years, do you get a clean score and start fresh?

MP:  No, the memory is always there.  It happens that you think to a piece, or you remember it in your mind even if you're not playing it, and having again the emotion that it already gave to you before.

BD:  But you bring more to it each time.

MP:  You try to give the maximum to it, yes.

BD:  Without being specific, are there perhaps some pieces that you have worked on, and then you decide you have come to the end, and you put them away?

MP:  Well, you never dare to say that you come to the end, especially with great music.  Schnabel said of the Beethoven sonatas that these are pieces better than any interpretation, they are beyond any interpretation.  So you see the situation of the artist.

BD:  When you come to the Beethoven sonatas, obviously they are Beethoven, and they have been since he wrote them.  How much is, then, Pollini?

MP:  This is the fact of the interpretation.  Certainly any music can live only with the sensitivity of the artist that certainly gives something to the piece which is not of the composer.  And it is right that this sensitivity is there, because without it, without the personality, there wouldn't be any interpretation, any convincing performance.  But this makes it so that every performance is different.  Every artist is different, and these great works come to life in different ways in history all the time.  And this is perhaps a very good thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  How do you divide your career between performances with orchestra and solo recitals?

MP:  [Pauses for a moment]  I don't give an enormous number of concerts.  I only give a relatively limited number of concerts.  Particularly with orchestra, I don't play very much.

BD:  Why?

pollini MP:  [Takes a deep breath]  It's just happen like this.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  It must be a conscious decision...

MP:  [Pauses for a moment]  Well, I don't give you any explanation.  It just happen like this.

BD:  Do you find it's better or worse, or just different, to have a collaborator with you, rather than just yourself?

MP:  Well, the collaboration means always a challenge, a risk because sometimes things go very well.  It is of enormous pleasure, like it was, for instance, tonight.  I have to tell you the Schumann Concerto with Daniel Barenboim was one performance I think that I will remember, because it seems to me that really the Schumann Concerto was living in this performance, which doesn't happen all the time.

BD:  So you collaborated with Barenboim and with the orchestra?

MP:  Yeah.  With only two rehearsals.  There was not great rehearsal, but I think there was a musical relation that worked very well in this case.

BD:  When you are playing a solo recital, are you collaborating with the audience?

MP:  Collaborating with the audience...  [Ponders this point for a moment]  No.  Obviously the artist has a vision of the music that, in a way, perhaps, it's too brutal to impose to the audience, but to make the audience live with him.  So this is a part of what happens in a concert hall.  But certainly there is also something that it is given by the attitude, and by the audiences themself.  With their attitude they participate to the performance, and some of the character of the performance can be inscribed also to the presence of the audience, I think.

BD:  Are you always conscious of the audience that is there in the hall?

MP:  I'm thinking to the music.  I'm very much in the music, but certainly I know, and I feel their presence.

BD:  Well, we're kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the question straight out:  What is the purpose of music?

MP:  [Thinks for a moment then chuckles]  Well, this is a very difficult question.  One might ask what is the purpose of art in general, compared, for instance, to the science.  Everybody is absolutely clear that the science is useful to humanity, because from any technical improvement, which is a derivation from the scientific progress.  What is art for?  Perhaps the peculiarity of art is that there is not a clear material advantage visible.  I think that the existence of art is one of the greatest gift for humanity existing, even if practically it seems that it doesn't bring anything particular.  It is a very spiritual gift for humanity, and extremely important that we should be treasured and understood very well, even if it has no practical, clear advantage that everybody can see.

BD:  Well, should there be any practicality to music?

MP:  [Again, thinks for a moment, then chuckles]  I don't know.

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BD:  You mentioned science.  Is there more science now going into the modern pianos?  Are we still making improvements in the technology of the pianos?

MP:  In the fabrication of the instrument?

BD:  Yes.

pollini MP:  Well, I don't think so very much, because the construction of the instruments is about the same that it was years ago.  There has been certainly a great improvement during the last century and perhaps at the beginning of this century, but then the concert grand piano remained what it is.  And to be honest with you, I only hope that it will remain as good as it is, and won't perhaps go down, which is very easy, because it has to deal also with man, with patience, with a lot of problems, with financial problems for the material.  I hope we will always have good instrument.  This is always a point of question.

BD:  When you travel around from city to city, how long is it before that instrument is yours?

MP:  This time I came here to the United States, and I brought a piano from Europe that I played in New York and here and Boston.

BD:  I see.  But when you come to a new piano?

MP:  Ah, if the instrument is good, it's wonderful.  [Chuckles]  It's a challenge because, you know, every instrument is different from the other.  It has a peculiarity.  It has a personality because it's made of organic material, of wood, no?  It has a personality, and it's always very interesting and very pleasant to play on a new instrument if they are good.

BD:  Is the instrument, then, your first collaborator?

MP:  In a way, it has to be so, yes.

BD:  When you sit down at the piano, are you playing the instrument, or does the instrument become part of you?

MP:  Perhaps is both things.  Both things, yes.

BD:  You've made a number of recordings.  Do you play the same for the microphone as you do for a concert?

MP:  The relation with the music is absolutely the same.  In the case of recording in a studio, there is the absence of the public in that moment, which makes the performance a little more artificial.  But you have to think that there will be an audience when they will listen to the record, an audience actually displaced in time.

BD:  So you're conscious of that later audience?

MP:  One has to think this way because otherwise it makes really no sense.  It's very tiring to play an instrument, to do a performance.  To do it for somebody it makes sense, but doing only for yourself makes less sense.  You can imagine very well the music in your head, and be completely satisfied, without any effort.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You have played quite a bit of new music.  What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the keyboard today?

pollini MP:  What advice?  I can't say that one sees from the experience up to now that by the experience of the production of the modern composer of this last half of the century that it is still always possible to discover new possibility in the piano writing - new sounds, new characters.  Therefore I can only say to the composer, "Explore the instrument again and again.  It can give new possibilities, perhaps."  Many times it has been said the piano has given everything it could.  It has been said many times after the extraordinary era of the 19th century, and then came obviously Bartók and Stravinsky; Debussy and Ravel to say nothing of Schoenberg and Webern.  And now has come Boulez and Stockhausen.  They discovered on the piano something that didn't exist, some new possibilities.  So, I hope this process will continue.

BD:  Is this the responsibility of the composer, to discover new things?

MP:  I think, yes.

BD:  Is this the responsibility, then, of the pianist, to find all of these new things in the music?

MP:  Everybody has to do his part of the process. [Laughter]

BD:  What advice do you have for younger pianists coming along?

MP:  An important advice is not to give up giving time to the modern production of music.  Even if it is perhaps difficult, even if perhaps impresarios or organizers of concerts are not particularly enthusiastic, but because it is an important part of their profession.  It is an important thing that they can give to the public, an important thing for themselves not to give up this part of the repertoire, the modern repertoire.  This is one advice.  Perhaps there are many.  [Chuckles]

BD:  It seems that many pianists specialize.  Should they specialize in the whole repertoire?

MP:  [Thinks for a moment]  They should specialize in the music with whom they have a strong personal feeling, in which they have really something to say.  Otherwise they have very well the possibility not to play the music, because the repertoire of the piano, as we said, is so big.  So it's not necessary for them to deal with every part of it.

BD:  [Facetiously]  You mean no one can play every piece???

MP:  No.  [Laughter]

BD:  Should someone try?

MP:  [Chuckles]  No.

BD:  What advice do you have for audiences?

MP:  [Again, thinks for a moment]  Yes.  I have an advice for audience.  Sometimes the audience don't want to make an effort listening to music, especially concerning the contemporary music.  On the contrary, I think that a certain effort is really necessary for the new music, but is also - and this is why the advice is important - it is really necessary to understand deeply the masterpiece of the past.  Therefore, I would advise them, in the listening, to accept a certain part of effort that at the end can give the greatest reward, than without it.

BD:  So you want them to participate.

MP:  Yes.  I think it's right.  I think they can be happier.

BD:  Music is to make them happy???

MP:  Yeah.  Certainly!  Certainly.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  One last question.  Is playing the piano fun?


MP:  Also, yes.  I think the very deep pleasure is more than fun, it's much more than fun.  A very big pleasure, but you have to certainly accept a very big effort, also.  Otherwise there will be no fun.

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© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This interview was held on October 23, 1997, in Pollini's dressing room, backstage at Orchestra Hall in Chicago.  Some of the material was aired on WNIB in 2000, and on WNUR in 2003.  The transcript was made in December of 2006, and was posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.