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Krystian Zimerman

April 23, 2006

Krystian Zimerman

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Precision and Passion

By Jerry Kuderna

The first half of Krystian Zimerman's recital at Zellerbach Hall on Sunday was full of surprises, including some extramusical ones, in this case involving a defection, an abduction, and a substitution. On the musical side, there was brilliant programming: Mozart followed by Ravel for openers, two composers whose technical polish and restraint would seem to have found an ideal match in Zimerman's impeccable pianism. The pianist usually tours with his own Hamburg Steinway piano and even does some of his own regulation, thereby gaining a degree of control over the problem of adjusting to unfamiliar and sometimes uncooperative instruments.

Mozart's Sonata in C, K. 330, radiated control and order, and Zimerman's technical polish was impeccable down to the smallest grace note. In the outer movements, Zimerman seemed to be toying with the musical content to put us at our ease — nothing can go wrong here. The dynamic shadings he achieved were all impressive, considering the unflattering acoustics of Zellerbach. He teased out some lovely inner voices, rising to eloquence when called to do so. The bittersweet harmony that came just before the end of the slow movement was delivered with convincing pungency. I thought the final two forte chords at the end of the piece could have done without the two extra bars of silence (not by Mozart) that preceded them.

Nuance — and air-conditioners

One of a great piano's qualities is its ability to sustain a sound. Zimerman exploits this to great effect in his recordings, where microphones pick up the subtlest nuances. But even the finest piano sound can get lost in a large hall, which does not give the performer much in the way of feedback. Although some of his mastery of color came through live, some efforts to be spontaneous and to "communicate" sounded a bit forced.

When every phrase is calculated to the point of predictability, it is possible either to settle back and listen to timeless perfection as it passes by, or to wish for something unusual to happen — and of course, it did. Here we come to the "defection" part of the program.

In the attempt to find tempi that would liven up in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentals, Zimerman ventured pretty far from the composer's indications. It might be argued that the work's sentimental side lies in its bittersweet acceptance of the limitations of the waltz, the ingenious ways in which the composer varies the tempo and mood from one piece to the next, and the different ways he joins the seven waltzes (plus epilogue) together. Sometimes he marks a pause and they will flow together, but surely the epilogue is meant to follow a fermata. As it happened, the air-conditioning system supplied a grand pause in the piece (one not marked by Ravel). It was apparently left on despite Zimerman's protestations, and when he could put up with it no longer, he excused himself and went backstage to make a final plea for quiet. He then returned, unruffled, to finish the piece.

Soaring Chopin

The Chopin F-minor Ballade was played in lieu of scheduled Gershwin preludes (here is the substitution). Before playing it, Zimerman told the audience that the piano he takes on tour had been confiscated for five days (the abduction) after failing to pass through security at JFK airport. It was checked out thoroughly and returned with some broken keys. Zimerman was forced to import another piano and used one of three piano actions that accompany him on his tours.

The performance of the fourth and greatest of the Chopin Ballades received an impassioned reading, with its noble pathos, deep song, and terrifying coda revealed in breathtaking detail. It conveyed both a sense of nostalgia and revolt. When the music broke free and soared as only Chopin can, we found the proper response to all that would shackle and confine the human spirit.

Following intermission, there was more Chopin. The Four Mazurkas, Op. 24, found Zimerman again in a lyrical and restrained mood. As in the Ravel, he seemed less interested in dancing than in the search for an elusive sound, something outside of time to express the inexpressible. The senza tempo opening of the fourth Mazurka in B-flat minor was emblematic of all the hesitation we have ever felt walking onto a dance floor. The final rallentando at the end of the piece was unbearably poignant, as it vacillated between hope and despair. As the dancing drew to a close, the listeners' spirits unexpectedly found the peace they sought.

Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata is one the monuments of keyboard literature, and one of its greatest challenges. Zimerman played it with all the fire, daring, and technical command it demands. The first movement repeat was taken, not to the very first bars with its doom-laden warning, which makes more sense harmonically and dramatically — but it was unusual to hear it at all. The scherzo was taken at a clip that few can manage, and Zimerman missed no notes. In the slower trio he focused on each beat of the bar and seemed more absorbed in the sounds than in the phrases which, as in the fast music, move one to the bar.

The march itself seemed to stop time. There was a riveting pathos in the pitiless dotted rhythms, and the angelic trio was certainly the emotional center of the recital. It seemed to float in a kind of numb surrender in a place where there was neither suffering nor joy. The final movement was more a whirlwind than merely "wind over the grave." Zimerman hears the piece as a mad and perhaps mindless flight into the void, where harmony no longer exists, only two hands racing together at inhuman speeds. No encores were given, though the audience still seemed to want more.

(Jerry Kuderna is a pianist who teaches at Diablo Valley College.)

©2006 Jerry Kuderna, all rights reserved