Maurizio Pollini's death has robbed the world of a major presence. He was a pianist who compelled you to think again, to re-access your musical priorities. You could accept, reject or compromise, but you could never remain indifferent or complacent. And herein lies a paradox. Talking to Pollini many years ago on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday I was struck by his quiet, gentlemanly demeanour, anxious to deflect attention away from himself and to consider anyone's opinions other than his own. Contradicting a reputation for being 'difficult' he was the reverse of a prima donna. Accompanied by a jug of combined blackcurrant and orange juice and a plentiful supply of cigarettes he was happy to reminisce while confessing he was a present and future man, and also to reflect on his recital given at the Festival Hall the previous night. 'I was lucky to grow up in Milan. Every great musician came to play at La Scala. Recitals by Rubinstein and Kempff, in particular, remain among my most treasured memories. For me they were iconic figures so that I went into shock when Rubinstein told me after my performances at the 1960 Chopin Competition in Warsaw that I played better than any of them on the jury. I mean, imagine him saying that to me, a teenager of little experience and no standing. Then there was Kempff, who I would describe as a Goethian pianist, a true poet of the piano. People say I don't like Rachmaninov. But that is not true. I don't play him because he doesn't suit my temperament. I wouldn't play him well. My son plays good Rachmaninov and of course, I would travel a thousand miles to hear Martha (Argerich) play the Third Concerto. Returning to the present, I was happy after my recital last night and appreciated the audience's warmth. They were attentive rather than sleeping during my performances of Stockhausen and Berio, unlike too many audiences elsewhere. I have always included modern and contemporary works in my programmes, my insistence that music is an endlessly evolving art and has no place in a museum.

   Returning to today and a sadness felt by many thousands of musicians at the passing of a pianist ranked high in the Parthenon of great musicians. Firstly, Pollini was a revolutionary, his quiet manner off stage replaced by a burning clarity and strength of vison as a pianist. Celebrated as 'cerebral' and 'intellectual,' he also made his critics see such descriptions as limiting virtues, his playing circumscribed by his instantly recognisable overall attitude and approach. For some he suggested 'lyrical abandonments' and an absence of 'virtuoso elegance.' Hardly a pianist for musical small talk it is impossible to think of him in, say, 'Arabesques on the Blue Danube' or in the more flamboyant as opposed to late, austere Liszt. Again, the less admiring among his listeners heard 'a subjectivity under constant interrogation.'  If some found him pure others found him streamlined. Certainly, he represented a new voice, a cleansing, even a puritanism that stressed the primacy of creator over recreator, a vital and uncompromising wish to remain true to a composer whether in his outer or inward manifestations. For Sviatoslav Richter, an often-sardonic commentator on other pianists, Pollini's Chopin was 'armour-plated.' As a corollary it is true that when during the latter part of his career his seemingly infallible mastery started to crumble you were left to question what remained beneath a once gleaming and immaculate surface.

   My own memories of Pollini at his greatest would include his first London, all-Chopin recital with performances of the F sharp minor and A flat Polonaises of an overwhelming physicality and heroic strength. Then there were Schubert's last three Sonatas, characteristically, but also memorably patrician, also the complete Debussy Etudes and a detachment and command far removed from, say, Gieseking's legendary and opalescent if far less perfect reading.

    Of his recordings I would single out that flawless Stravinsky 'Petrushka,’ a truly aristocratic rather than diffident way with both Schubert's 'Wanderer' Fantasie and the Schumann Fantasie, Chopin's Polonaises and his first rather than second recording of the 24 Preludes; the second a distressingly sober and lifeless re-visit. I would also add his first recording of the Chopin Etudes. I fought long and hard against Pollini's refusal to allow their release and was more than gratified by a sudden change of heart. Perhaps they weren't so bad after all!

    Such instances make me forget the later years when as one writer put it the playing became fraught with nervous stress (that breathless impatience, those fore-shortened phrases') and remember an artist who, at his greatest, opened up new horizons and musical vistas. Rubinstein may have erased a once accepted weak and sentimental view of Chopin, but Pollini took such a virile rehabilitation several stages further. When I told him that the French pianist, Bernard d'Ascoli called him a 'moral' pianist, he looked momentarily bemused, commenting, 'I will have to think about that. We will surely join him in reflection. His presence will be greatly missed and if, in the long-term, his playing inspired more awe than affection his vision will be discussed, defined and re-defined over the years. 

Bryce Morrison