Krystian Zimerman

Sonata in C, K330
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Ballade in F minor, Op.52
Four Mazurkas, Op.24 Sonata in B flat minor, Op.35

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 9 June, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

To say that Krystian Zimerman is an enigma would be an understatement. Since winning the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1975, he has made only about 20 recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and he limits his concert appearances to about 50 a year – and he doesn’t turn up for quite a few of these! He also, like Richter used to, takes his own piano with him wherever he goes. Nor can his playing be called conventional: his Debussy Préludes and most recent Chopin concertos divided critical and public opinion, and this combination of rarity and interpretative licence have made his recitals eagerly awaited.

Such high expectations can often be disappointed, but on this occasion Zimerman gave a recital which belonged to the grand tradition. In an age where musical freedom is frowned upon it was a privilege to hear an artist impose his will on a series of works in an idiosyncratic yet idiomatic and convincing manner. In the past the likes of Arrau, Barère, Cortot, Friedman, Gilels, Horowitz, Richter, Rubinstein, Solomon, Schnabel and many other giants used the score as the starting point for an intellectual and emotional journey rather than as some dry tome which cannot be deviated from. Today only Argerich, Kovacevich, Lupu, Perahia and Pletnev can be said, with Zimerman, to have continued this tradition and as such this recital came as a benediction.

The concert opened with Mozart’s C major Sonata, hardly great music but, throughout, Zimerman combined limpid phrasing and a Bachian sense of line with an extraordinary range of tone colour, whatever the dynamic, although he never went above forte and more rhythmic attack, something more Beethovenian, would have been welcome. On its own terms the approach was totally compelling, though, and Ravel’s waltzes brought incredibly refined pianism, no more so than in the Epilogue where the use of ppp and pppp tonal shading was ravishing yet haunting. Prior to this some tempos had been very slow, but were sustained by total concentration; in the more bravura passages pointed and powerful rhythms were combined with a sense of underlying anarchic danger.

Chopin’s great and infinitely subtle final Ballade received a performance which eschewed any form of excessive tampering with tempo markings – everything was achieved by subtle rubato, touch and tone and, when needed, a quiet but singing spirituality; the more demonstrative passages were massively powerful yet totally controlled. In the Mazurkas some of the tempos were spacious but, as only great artists can do, Zimerman persuaded you that his conception was right. This ability is not just down to technique but to self-belief, concentration, intensity and ability to communicate.

A few years ago I heard Perahia give one of the greatest performances of the B minor Sonata; now Zimerman has given an equally great account of the B flat minor. The first subject was fast and combined sweep with absolute control of tone and dynamics. Zimerman’s tempo for the second subject was slow – in direct contradiction to the score which indicates no tempo change – but the phrasing and concentration maintained forward motion. In the short development there were some very old-fashioned pauses and ritardandos, but the climax was imperiously powerful, as was the coda. The scherzo was fast, with some extraordinarily large dynamic variations and staccato effects, while the trio was sung but never sentimental.

Zimerman’s tempo for the Funeral March was slow, but his absolute command of the instrument meant that there was never any suggestion that the line would fragment; rather the left-hand implacably maintained the march while the right expressed noble despair. He also played the great outbursts by contrasting forte and double forte as marked, rather than the sustained ff of others. In the central slow section the use of dolce ppp tone created an atmosphere of rapt concentration, the return of the march very quiet which led to an extraordinary and startling account of the movement’s final half-page, the sound became hollow and sepulchral and never above pp. In the elusive last movement every one of the semiquavers could be heard, as could expressive and rhythmic variety; Zimerman played the final three chords with long pauses between each one, none of which are marked, but it was very effective. There were no encores; after such an account of the sonata nothing could have been appropriate.

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