Maurizio Pollini is a pianist I greatly admire - so much so that I wouldn't hesitate to compare him with 2 other pianists I consider to be 'in the same mold', technique-wise and possibly even interpretation-wise: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and the one and only Rachmaninov.
All have an outstanding leggiero technique, never fall back on the pedal to conceal inadequacies (since they have none), and have a deep understanding of the music which they manage to convey without projecting too much of their ego onto the music, resulting in a quite objective yet incredibly moving interpretation.
Anyway, enough adulation. Around the end of last year, I found out about a newish CD - it was actually released in 2011 - which I had somehow not heard about yet. The CD is of a very young Pollini playing the complete Chopin Etudes, recorded in 1960 but unreleased until a few years ago. You can listen to samples (and buy it) here
Until I discovered this recording, my favorite interpretation of the Chopin etudes was Ashkenazy's. In fact, Ashkenazy was the first person I ever heard get ALL the notes right in the Op. 10 No. 1 (I've since discovered other pianists who have achieved this astonishing feat).
However, as soon as I heard the 18-year-old Pollini's interpretation - even though I could only hear 20 second samples of each track - I knew his version was going to replace Ashkenazy's in my affection.
I ordered the CD more or less straight away, but due to some problems wth the delivery, I didn't recieve until a few days ago, nearly 3 months after I bought it! In a way, though, the wait made it even more special when I finally got to listen to the whole thing.
Before I even start on Pollini's playing, I want to say a little about the audio production. One of the things I've always disliked about Ashkenazy's recordings of anything, no matter how good the playing, is the tone: very clangy and bright, with hardly any warmth. I like a warm, mellow piano sound, and I like close mic'ing. Pollini's 1960 recording has both in abundance, along with just a smidgin of ambience and reverb. The result is possibly the most beautiful recording quality I've ever heard. The piano is crystal clear, and very exposed as a result, but the playing is so flawless that this just goes to show off Pollini's incredible technique.
Now for the playing. Needless to say, technically it is note perfect: so is Ashkenazy's, of course. Where Pollini differs from Ashkenazy is in the emotional aspect. Whereas Ashkenazy plays the etudes in accordance with what their name implies - technical studies - Pollini brings out the musical masterpiece in every one of them, which to me is far more what these pieces are about. What makes Chopin's etudes so brilliant and innovative is that in them, technical exercises are turned into miniature works of art - something which had never been done before, and which has set a precedent for many composers since.
Nowhere is the artistic value of the etudes more clear on Pollini's recording than in Op. 10 nos. 3, 6, and 9. In these pieces, one can hear Pollini's deep sensitivity, which is always in perfect balance so that it never becomes sentimentality.
On the technical side of things, a particularly good example is....well, everything. However, I am going to single out Op. 25 No. 11 (my favorite etude EVER) because of the astonishing leggiero and pedalling that it displays. Both of these technical aspects are also showcased in Op. 10 No. 4, 5 and 8.
I feel like Pollini's technique in these etudes fully deserves comparison with Rachmaninov's. It's not very often you hear technique like that anymore: where the pianist is so in control of the pedal that one can't tell that it's being used, nothing is blurred, every note can be heard with crystal clarity and is given equal importance. To me, these are characteristics of both Rachmaninov's and, on this recording at least, Pollini's playing. I really believe if we could hear Rachmaninov's playing recorded with modern technology, it would sound very much like Pollini on this CD.
(...In fact, one CAN hear Rachmaninov playing with modern recording technology: judge for yourself. and in case you're not convinced, here is another example which probably provides a better comparison to the production on Pollini's recording.)
I could go on and on about this CD, but everything I'd say can be summed up in two words. IT'S PERFECT. I highly reccommend it!
P.S. I managed to find Pollini's more recent recording of the Chopin etudes on Youtube, and I really dislike it (not least because of the production, although I don't like the interpretation, which is vastly different, either.)