sat 17/04/2021

Krystian Zimerman, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Krystian Zimerman, RFH

Krystian Zimerman, RFH

Polish celebrant of Chopin's birthday can be poetic when he's not in his speedboat

Beware of Zimermania - or, for that matter, of idolising any pianist as the Greatest Living Interpreter of Chopin. Our birthday boy, 200 years old last night (and not on 1 March), as a crucial baptismal register now seems to prove, is too big for any one artist to dominate. He looks to his French heritage for sensuality, to the Polish maternal line for Slavic weight and thoughtfulness. If a sometimes impatient Krystian Zimerman inclined more to the former in yesterday's big celebration, that's not to deny he was a worthy choice of golden-toned celebrant. It was just a pity that it all had to be such a circus, and that the human zoo around the lone figure on the Festival Hall platform took so long to settle.

You may have observed a note of grumpy confessional lurking here. The fact is that some of us have already had our vision, before this year's bicentenary celebrations even began. Last November I pedalled furiously from Louis Lortie's scintillating journey through the Op. 10 Etudes to the second half of Elisabeth Leonskaja's Chopin recital at the Wigmore Hall. Like Zimerman, she presented the towering Second and Third Piano Sonatas in a single evening; unlike him, she had an audience prepared to listen to everything in total silence, not even applauding between pieces until it was all officially over. It was artistry as sacred rite, with a meditative dimension that seemed capable of going ever deeper.

Pure, ineffable grace touched us again in the one encore

This could hardly happen in a large and restless auditorium, no place for Chopinesque confessional when latecomers as well as applause seeped in between sonata movements. They were still arriving for the cunningly positioned B flat minor Scherzo, pure wizardry, at the end of the first half.

Zimerman did, though, manage to still the hordes in both great slow movements. While his idiosyncratic way with the funeral march of the Second Sonata rose to heights of well-weighted, measured grief, stitched in the human central song as very much part of the same experience and allowed the turbulent miasma of the finale to escape from its confines like smoke from a vampire's coffin, the supreme challenge - the Largo of the B minor Sonata, which I'm told obsessive pianists compare notes about more than any other piece - stayed closer to the surface. It might have been Zimerman's insistence on the left-hand rhythms under the poised main melody, as well as a slightly nebulous rather than an assured ethereal sense of time suspended at the sonata's still centre, that kept hypnotic enchantment at bay. His greatest achievement here was the finale, all of a piece in its magisterial ebb and flow.

Earlier, the hurly-burly of the Second Sonata's opening movement seemed too rushed to convey its thought processes. Zimerman's palette, backed up by his own personal tuner and piano, is unique, and he never needs to force the sound at climaxes, but the philosophical argument sometimes disappears from the picture. Surely the Barcarolle, spellbinding as the oarsman's song temporarily vanishes beneath the waves, needs to keep its graceful motion in the grand peroration. Here Zimerman exchanged his luminous gondola two-thirds of the way through for a flashy, buzzing speedboat.

Pure, ineffable grace touched us again in the one encore, the perhaps inevitable C sharp minor waltz. And scintillating chains of waltzes or mazurkas, I was suddenly reminded, rather than the big guns of the large-scale works, were what I'd really rather have heard from Zimerman all along.

Here's a younger Krystian in the very grounding work with which he began last night's recital, the F sharp Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 2:

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