Krystian Zimerman at Royal Festival Hall

Partita in C minor, BWV826
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Klavierstücke, Op.119
Variations on a Polish Theme, Op.10

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 27 May, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Krystian ZimermanKrystian Zimerman’s star status has been partly fuelled by the limited number of appearances he makes each year, around the 50 mark. This allows to him to concentrate on a smaller number of works, which are lived with and worked on for long periods. Indeed Zimerman’s three performances in the UK this year have featured the same programme. Recorded output is even sparser – just over 20 for Deutsche Grammophon in thirty years. He’s not without some controversial views on subjects ranging from digital recording, modern pianos, Beethoven’s (alleged) deafness and the view that music is more than just an aural experience and cannot be defined only by notes or by sound: the interaction between artist and audience is the only way to fully “reconstruct the composer’s original emotions.”

There’s physicality to Zimerman’s performing that is quite alluring. His body is in constant motion, arms are flung high and at several points during the Szymanowski, his left-foot stamped furiously on the floor. There’s also the question of pianos. With at least 21 to his name at the last count, Zimerman places great importance on how different keyboards need to be tailored to individual composers, even works. Entirely logical then that we had a harder edged keyboard for the Bach, his performance anything but. Any thoughts that we might be heading down the Glenn Gould route were quickly dispelled with the grand opening flourish of the opening ‘Sinfonia’. This was big-boned Bach, lush, amply upholstered and not a little romantic. The ‘Allemande’ was stately, the ‘Sarabande’ beautifully refined and introspective. The ‘Rondeau’ though could have danced more, the ‘Courante’ sailed dangerously close to sounding non-Bach-like in its emotional candour as did the fiery closing ‘Capriccio’.

Change of work, change of keyboard. As he took his bows for the Bach, a technician appeared and removed the entire keyboard and replaced it with another. The Steinway was transformed into something akin to a ‘modern’ piano.

And it showed in the fuller tone available for the last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Beethoven used a two-movement form in some of his earlier sonatas but the return to this form towards the end of his life took on much more significance, the darker key of C minor in the opening movement contrasting with the more tranquil C major of the second. There were many wonderful things about this performance, the sheer intensity of the opening movement and the glittering virtuosity of the faster Variations of the second one, which at times took the breath away. There wasn’t though quite enough contrast in approach – from the physical to the spiritual world. What was missing was the last ounce of concentration of feeling and inner contemplation that prevented this from being a truly great performance.

The works of the recital’s second half were in a lighter vein. Brahms’s Opus 119 collects four Piano Pieces that were his final statement for his own instrument, three Intermezzos and a Rhapsody. Zimmerman was delightful here, poetic and with delicate shades of tonal colouring, grand and authoritative in the Rhapsody without teetering into bombast.

Szymanowski’s rarely heard Variations on a Polish Theme was composed a decade or so after the Brahms. It’s an early work started around 1900 and completed some four years later and based on a Polish folk melody upon which a set of ten Variations are built. It’s a richly opulent work very much in the Romantic tradition with more than a passing reference to Chopin in the way the eighth Variation ‘Funeral March’ moves towards us and then away. It’s easy to see why Zimerman is so enthusiastic about this work, which allows him full reign to dazzle us with his virtuosity, the finale culminating in some magnificent passages of bravura. Zimerman offered no encore.

  • The International Piano Series 2007/08 continues in June with recitals by Maurizio Pollini (10th) and Alfred Brendel (27th)
  • Southbank Centre

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