From Mozart to Nono, By Way of Pollini


After a rainy and cold summer, sunny weather has graced Berlin’s September. At 52º North, summer evenings in Berlin are long, the winter ones short, by December even non-existent. Over the course of September, when the concert season gets going again, sundown moves from just before 8:00pm on the first of the month to 6:45 by the 30th. In good weather the forgiving September twilight allows one time to contemplate the steady progress of the sun farther to the south, the luminous equinoxial chords of summer’s end providing the prelude to the concerts and operas evenings that will brighten the darkness of the months ahead.

In other words, if it’s not raining, September is great time to ride your bike to a concert. Although old time West Berliners complain about the noise and bustle that has overcome their city since the reunification with the East in 1990, the traffic is minimal compared to that of any American metropole or even your average car-choked suburbs. After seven o’clock in the evening I can cycle from my apartment a few blocks from the Schöneberg Town Hall, where Willy Brandt held forth in the most heated days of Cold War and where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, to the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic, in about fifteen minutes. Along the way I encounter very few cars—dozens, rather than hundreds.

This past Tuesday evening was warm, though trees and gardens along the sidewalks gave off the decaying scents of fall. In this section of Berlin many of the streets refer to Thuringia—Eisenach; Gotha; the Wartburg; where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. Both Bach and Luther were from Eisenach, and my favored route to the Philharmonie takes me north up the Eisenacherstrasse and then east along the Nollendorfstrasse where Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden lived in the sexually permissive noontime of Weimar Berlin. A plaque outside the Nollendorfplatz subway station commemorates the raids and roundups of the Nazi war on homosexuals carried out in this quarter. The Nollendorf Platz itself was conceived as a gracious late 19th-century square with a park and fountain. With a permanence that the bombs couldn’t achieve, city planners devastated it in the early 1970s by widening the road to six-lanes.

Even with little traffic, traversing this tangle of streets is a grim business, but getting through it allows me to cut northeast to the Kurfürstenstrasse. As always, night or day, the street is busy with female prostitutes. In the six intervening years since my last lengthy stay in Berlin, their outfits have become more revealing. But the thong, too, has its season. It will either fly south or seek refuge under heavier garments with the onset of winter.

The women walk the street in the shadow of the Church of the Twelve Apostles. Berlin is still a low city, the buildings rarely rising above the height of the five-story 19th– and early 20th century apartment blocks. The red brick towers of the many churches are placed carefully in squares that afford oncoming pedestrians and cyclists long, well-framed views. Thus the churches retain much of their imposing architectural stature relative to the surroundings, even if many of them are nearly empty on Sunday mornings. As if transplanted from another world, or simply evoking one, the tower of the Twelve Apostles shone above the darkening streets, the bricks aglow in orangish light.

Over the Landwehrkanal, which once marked the transition from the urban periphery of old Berlin, my route takes me into the Stauffenbergstrasse (named after the officer who placed the bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler in the Wolf’s Lair) and past the Ministry of Defense and the menacing austerity of the nearby Nazi buildings where the plot against Hitler was hatched in 1944. The area was mostly devoid of buildings even only a decade ago. Now a huge hotel has risen up on the east side of the street, and a few café tables attempt something of the street life for which Berlin is rightly celebrated.

Around the corner one comes to Berlin’s main picture gallery, the Gemäldegallerie, in the so-called Culture Forum of which the Philharmonie was the first building.

The gallery is apparently too distant from the attractions of the Brandenburg Gate and the massed cultural treasures of the recently restored Museum Island in central Berlin. That’s good luck for those who do visit the Gemäldegallerie, where one can stand for minutes at a time alone in a room full of Old Masters, with only the occasional guard flashing through.

Contemporary with the building of the Berlin Wall, the Philharmonie was planted in the middle of a thoroughly abandoned area cleared of the war’s rubble, except for another those eye-catching churches, this one dedicated to St. Matthew. Not far to the East ran the Wall after 1961. The cultural power of the West, beginning with Hans Scharouns’ Philharmonie and the nearby New National Gallery of Mies van der Rohe of 1968 flexed considerable of cultural muscle in the direction of the Wall.

Where once were houses and shops in the pre-war days there is now plenty of parking. The BMWs and Mercedes backing into their spots present far greater dangers to the cyclist than the roads of Berlin. The first rule of the cyclist is: Don’t get between a rushed suburban concertgoer and his chosen bit of asphalt.

After dancing in and out of the threatening automotive choreography of the parking lot, I made my way through the skirmish line of ticket scalpers—the concert has long been sold out—to lock-up my bike at a lamppost near the entrance of the Philharmonie. My host, a music critic for the Berliner Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and only an occasional smoker, had just enjoyed  a solidarity cigarette alongside the evening’s soloist, Maurizio Pollini. I’ve never smoked a tobacco cigarette in my life, but would have eagerly lit up to share the moment with the great man had I arrived a bit earlier. The leveling proscriptions of the New Europe require that even Pollini can no longer smoke contentedly in the Philharmonie’s backstage lounge, but must take to the open air in his tailcoat for his pre-concert nicotine fix.

It was an evening of musical royalty, none loftier in the hierarchy than Pollini and Daniel Barenboim, who took to the podium in front of his Staatskapelle Berlin. I last saw Pollini in a solo concert dedicated to Chopin’s four ballades seven years ago in this same hall.  He turns seventy in a few months, and the intervening years make up a tenth of his life so far. In his entrance to the stage for the concluding concert of this years Music Festival, one couldn’t help but note the way he shuffled from the wings and up the ramp to his piano; a stop has set in; and instead of the fierce black of his abundant backward-swept hair there is only a faint bit of white remaining. Yet when he plays nothing is lost of the fire, finesse, and startling accuracy. For all his unmatched technical prowess, vast repertoire and memory, his stage presence exudes a disarming and seemingly genuine modesty. But then he sits at the piano and lets loose with an authority that must require absolute self-belief in his own musical powers.

The orchestra began with reduced numbers for Mozart Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 488. The vibrato-plagued strings deflated much of the liveliness and spontaneity that this perennial favorite should exude. Pollini tossed of the runs and trills like child play, though even a few omitted notes in the arpeggios went show that the great man is also human, perhaps more so as he approaches his eighth decade. As per contract, Pollini brought an enormous Hamburg Steinway customized by the Italian technician Angelo Fabbrini, whose decal is rather meretriciously embossed on the cheek of the mighty instrument. We are now used to such golden advertising on the otherwise gleaming blackness of a concerts grand’s acres of impassive veneer, but somehow when Pollini is at the piano it  seems below royalty to have this logo front and center, like a Nike swoop on the pope’s mitre. The souped-up Steinway is hardly carry-one luggage.  The breathtaking extravagance of traveling with a personalized concert grand piano is embodied in the ebony exterior: it doesn’t leave behind a carbon footprint, but rather a meteor-sized crater. When the black beast was lowered on its elevator into the bowels of the stage at intermission, I imagined it descending into the deepest shaft of a coal mine where all the miners wear white ties and tails.

While clearer and more responsive than most concert grands, the Fabbrini is still massively overpowered for the quick wit and conversational give-and-take of this concerto, as if Mozart had showed up to at one of Vienna’s baroque palaces in a Hummer—black of course. The incisive attack of the wooden pianos of Mozart’s day is far better suited to this music than the cast-iron behemoths of the post-industrial age. Here’s betting that Pollini could adjust his technique to such a diminutive ancestor of his fabulous Fabbrini in less than an hour.

The stage was left to Pollini on the second piece of the first half—Luigi Nono’s … sofferte onde serene … (perhaps to be translated as “suffering, serene waves”), dedicated to the pianist; it dates from 1980/81 and is for live piano and tape heard from speakers arranged across the stage and even under the Fabbrini-Steinway. Clever and thought-provoking programming had it follow the Mozart, with the elegiac profundity and soaring melancholy of the slow movement, which also begins with a solo piano introduction. In contrast to this sublime and often wrenching music more than two hundred years old, Nono’s work contemplates death in fretful, worried bursts, and involves often vexed dialogue between the “living” piano of the here-and-now and the recorded tape of an unsettled hereafter. These otherworldly sonorities, echoing and anticipating the tribulations of the piano’s presence, are less a reality than a projection of fears and hopes for what is to come. This is not the heavenly concert evoked so fervently by many an earlier composer, but a confrontation with eternity and the possibility that the very idea of it is merely a phantom of the imagination.

Whereas Mozart sensibly let each hand have its own space at the keyboard, Nono crowds them against one other, as if locked in grief—thumping and wailing repeated notes, clawing at chords; worrying their way towards fragmentary melodies. Mozart lets the hands glide effortless across his keyboard, one whose range was just five octaves, Nono pushed to the extremes of bass and treble registers, in precisely the highest and lowest octaves added to the instruments’ standard range since Mozart’s time.  The familiarity of the middle range was only occasionally sought, and even then with only the rarest gesture of comfort. The jumps of tessitura suggested perhaps the wild swings of mood that grief induces. The shock of the silence of the piece’s end, both sudden and uncannily expected, is a shattering musical evocation of death and loss. If there is the intimation of solace here, it is distant and baffling.

Only rare do a solo piece and orchestral works share the same program, and for Pollini’s moving performance Barenboim took a seat at the back of the stage, like a king enjoying his after dinner entertainment. There was something both imperious and impish about seeing Barenboim enthroned for all to see, and for once listening to music rather than making it. Hauteur and mischievousness seem the twin forces of his genius.

2011 marks the bicentenary of Franz Liszt’s birth, and his music was a running theme in  this year’s Berlin Music Festival. Liszt’s much more bombastic dramatization of torment and eternity seemed campy by comparison to Nono’s. That the harp glissandi, swerving chromatic harmonies, brass and percussion cannonades later became standard fare for Hollywood melodrama tended to sap them of the brash newness they had in Liszt’s time. The more controlled insinuations of the fugue in the second movement (Purgatorio) showed that the showman Liszt could project purgatorial doubt and anticipation with great finesse as well. The Gregorian tones of the women choir intoned the Magnificat at the end of the symphony from high up in the Philharmonie, hidden from view behind one of its interior rampart as if from a heaven whose angels have never heard Nono’s … sofferte onde serene … and would fall silent if they did.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. David Yearsley’s latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at