Political Piano: Zimerman at Shriver Hall 

Krystian ZimermanKrystian Zimerman has made a name for himself as one of the great pianists of our time – one of the few I would include in that rarified first tier of pianists where no more than half a dozen pianists roam. Relative scarcity may well play a part in this. Whenever he makes a recording or appearance, it becomes an ‘event’. Particularly meticulous with recordings, few of his ever receive anything less than highest praise. (A just released recording of the Brahms d-minor concerto will be reviewed on Ionarts shortly.)

Understandably there was that sense of witnessing an ‘event’ when Shriver Hall managed to get Krystian Zimerman to open their 40th Anniversary Piano Celebration series last Friday, marking Mr. Zimerman’s Baltimore debut. Before a nearly sold-out house, he opened with the ‘2006 Mozart obligato’, the dainty K. 330. With the extra ornamentation thrown in here and there, it reminded of the way with Mozart Pletnev presented on his recent recording – although some of it may just have been a hiccuping key from damage his Hamburg Steinway incurred en route. (Apparently he’s lost several in transport already. He announced his piano’s fates from stage – although those people who actually noticed would not have had to be told – the others were blissfully unaware, anyway.) The Allegro moderato had an unerring pulse and rhythmic stability, a quality otherwise in short supply during the recital. The dry Andante cantabile was followed by an Allegretto aware of its musical jokes (if not as genuinely joyous-sounding as in Pletnev) and the three last chords he slyly plunked down after waiting, waiting… and waving them off like an afterthought.

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J. Brahms, Piano Cto. no.1, Zimerman / Rattle / BPh

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F. Chopin, Ballades et al., Zimerman

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M. Ravel, Piano Ctos., Valses, Zimerman / Boulez / ClevO, LSO

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C. Debussy, Préludes, Zimerman

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F.Liszt, Piano Ctos., Totentanz, Zimerman / Ozawa / BSO
Then came Beethoven’s Pathétique, op. 13. And with it a dramatic – indeed pathetic – dedication to those men in prison who have had no fair trial because “some men broke the law because they decided to be the law.” Despite some supportive hollers, the air of inappropriateness hung heavy over Shriver Hall at that unexpected political outburst. I am sure that the assorted inmates at Gitmo – terrorists, soldiers, innocents, and Mudjaheddin alike – (the kind who support regimes that outlaw Beethoven, blow up statues of Buddha, condemn converts to Christianity to death, generally unenthusiastic about womens' rights) appreciated his gift of the Beethoven sonata tremendously. At least as much as the present Polish Ambassador must have appreciated Zimerman’s venture into his business. (At any rate, if he had been serious about his statement, he should have played the Fidelio transcription.)

Were the violent outbreaks in the Grave: Allegro di molto e con brio political statements, too? Was letting the chord just before the Adagio (measure 294) ring forever and then some? Or taking the first repeat back to the beginning, not just the Allegro? Nice touches in that first movement, but it was all over the place. The Adagio Cantabile was better; strong while melancholic, moving but never wavering, dramatic in a very specific sense: self-consciously hurtling itself to the end – a tragic one or one of resolve we don’t know until the final notes. The Rondo started bubbly, only to offer harsh cliffs. With eccentricities sprinkled everywhere and some anger management in the banged-out chords of the Allegro part of the third movement, the Beethoven was a very mixed bag.

The second half started with much-anticipated Chopin – the F minor Ballade, op. 52. Tempi were pulled here and there, not in a grid of rubato (Pollini-style), nor swimming slowly, loosely (Arrau). But then, especially in passages that eschew extremes of tempi or volume there were profoundly beautiful, exquisitely judged moments. The three hushed chords leading into the coda might be a question of personal taste as he played them, as was the Debussy-like opening of separate color dots that were supposed to come together as a coherent introduction. The run-up to the finale was undoubtedly the most impressive part of this Ballade: like clockwork did those fingers accentuate every individual note in that very dense and fast passage work.

I’ve always listened to Ravel’s Valses Nobles and Sentimentales more than my appreciation of them actually would merit – both in piano and orchestral versions – because the music, in its orchestrated form made for a ballet named Adélaïde (…ou le langage des fleurs). Long story I won’t get into. If I am to enjoy these thoroughly, they had better be played to the hilt. And here Krystian Zimerman’s attitude-filled playing worked splendidly for me! Violent and contemplative stresses and emphases, zooming in on one element, brushing over another, he turned those waltzes into wholly unpredictable little things. At the anonymous premiere the audience could not guess Ravel its author. Some - at that premiere - apparently thought ‘Satie’. Ridiculed as that suggestion is nowadays, Zimerman could have sold me those waltzes as Satie for a premium. Loved it. (His Ravel excellence is not surprising: his recording of the two piano concertos absolutely towers over any and all competition – a must-have for anyone remotely interested in Ravel, Zimerman, or piano concertos.)

Concluding the recital – before he was off, encore-less, despite wildest ovations – was the Grazyna Bacewicz Sonata no. 2. Music that has its home in a black pool of deep sounds all the way on the left of the keyboard, it jumps to life, repeatedly, into the higher register. Every one of its three movements ends contemplatively. It was delivered with panache and his usual, incredible skill – and a weird, personal story (the sonata is about “war, suffering, freeing people” – again) after which I had the impression that his daughter had been liberated by English officers from a German concentration camp. (Zimerman – the ninth Chopin International Piano Competition winner – was born on December 5th, 1956.) Whatever he meant, it is a work obviously close to his heart, and he won many new ears for it with his performance.

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