Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Pieces, Op.118
Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 11 June, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
A master pianist on home ground – Zimerman was completely inside this music, and completely inside its tradition. Playing with complete technical command and absolute intellectual rigour, and on his own piano, he created his own soundworld; interpretatively he brought a certainty and rightness at which one marvelled. Moreover, this was German repertoire – Zimerman’s depth of feeling never spilled-over into the nostalgic excess of his recent recording of Chopin’s two concertos.
Zimerman began with the six Brahms pieces, presenting them with a coherence and unity that turned them into a mature version of one of the early orchestral serenades – sunny expression replaced by that resigned and accepting. Launching the set with verve and brilliance, tempi and dynamics deeply considered, he never looked back – the perfectly judged simplicity and sadness of the A major Intermezzo (No.2), or the alien modernity of the one in F minor (No.4). He made no allowance for technical difficulties in the G minor Ballade (No.3) but still shaped every phrase with meaning. The F major Romanze (No.5) was a pageant of mediaeval chivalry, impressive for its chorale-like beauty of sound. The E flat Intermezzo that concludes the set was played as a microcosm of late Brahmsian psyche – an unearthly, inaccessible beginning submitting to an increasingly certain and triumphant rationality.
The opening of the Beethoven – a slight staccato on the first chords, the passagework achieved as far as possible with one hand – informed this would be an individual interpretation. Op.110 is the hardest to grasp of the late sonatas; it is neither obviously heroic nor straightforwardly lyrical. It has a beguiling technical simplicity, which begs the question: But what it’s all about? Zimerman was bold. He made no attempt to give an easy answer; he emphasised at every turn the music’s originality, its refusal to be categorised.
In the first movement, Zimerman contrasted the fleet demisemiquavers, the recitative and aria-like melodies and the chorale resolutions, clarifying how all these elements prefigure the finale. The scherzo was ambitiously, but successfully, swift and brusque; Zimerman made no attempt to smooth over the unheimlich, uncomfortable, aspect of the trio. He unfolded the emotional drama of the finale itself with no concessions to the listener – from the perfectly judged crescendo through the nine separated chords (horrifyingly exposed for the performer) to the brief triumph of the final peroration, neither the long ’Adagio’ recitatives nor the endless fugal lines were allowed to find any rest. In Zimerman’s hands Beethoven became a cubist Bach, the sonata played as a dissected Passion – art makes the strange familiar, the familiar strange – Op.110’s concentration and conciseness perfectly conveyed.
He began the youthful Brahms sonata with headlong brio, taking its heroism by the scruff of the neck, and giving full gravity to its yielding lyrical passages. In shaping so carefully the slow movement’s phrases, he completely succeeded in making this movement appear considered and reflective. Each movement was interpreted with such sympathy that any awkwardness of composition was disguised – although some freshness was lost in making it so archetypal Brahmsian, there was a gain in strength of expression and character.
Zimerman stressed the scherzo’s dance rhythms and the eerie recollections of the Intermezzo, within which was the martial snap of dotted figurations reminding of the ’military’ settings of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This was Brahms of song and dance, revealed as being as reflective and profound in his youth as he was capable of being heroic and child-like in his later years.
In March, Stephen Hough played this sonata at his Harrods recital. (Read Ying Chang’s review here) Where he brought lucidity and poise, Zimerman conjured forests and moonlight. Perhaps the first part of the finale was less strongly characterised, but the ease with which Zimerman overcame the technical challenges, and the bell-like tone with which he ended, were an ideal conclusion to a notably creative recital.
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