Royal Festival Hall
Bach – Partita no.4 in D major, BWV 828
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.32 in C minor, Op.111
Brahms – Four piano pieces, Op.119
Szymanowski – Variations on a Polish folk theme in B minor, Op.10
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Let it first be said that Krystian Zimerman is a great pianist, with a touch as an exquisite as any. I have long treasured a number of his recordings, perhaps above all his Webern solo piano works and his Ravel with Pierre Boulez. The evidence of this recital, however, was somewhat more mixed. There could be no doubting his stellar qualities as a pianist, but they did not always seem to stand in ideal sympathy with the music. By the same token, I did not sense a particular idea behind the programme beyond Zimerman’s choice of some favoured works. That there happened to be a brief fugato towards the end of the Szymanowski Variations does not seem to me in itself, as the programme notes had it, to return us in any meaningful sense to Bach. I am far from saying that every concert programme need be explicitly didactic in its intent, but the unfailing artistry in putting together a programme shown, for instance, by Boulez, is a great example to all manner of musicians. There had been a pre-concert talk, which I was unable to attend, so maybe this would have made matters clearer.
The Bach partita received an excellent performance. My single reservation lay with the somewhat hurried tempo of the courante, but even this presented a welcome contrast with the preceding allemande, and its trumpeting of bright D major was an undeniable joy. The ‘ornaments’ too were truly melodic, a quality too often disregarded or unappreciated by the more fey Bach would-be interpreters. The opening Grave adagio of the sinfonia was conceived in a grand, Busoni-like fashion, followed by a spellbinding hush for the Andante section, which opened out perfectly into the principal Allegro. Rhythmic definition and momentum were impeccable throughout. The echt-Bachian dissolution of the distinction between harmony and counterpoint came to the fore in the allemande and rondeau. The allemande received a dreamily Romantic reading, shaded with great beauty, whilst the exquisite variation between shades of legato, non legato, and staccato in the rondeau evoked impressions of other Baroque keyboard composers, notably Rameau and Scarlatti. Zimerman’s ravishing touch presented the sarabande, quite rightly, as the still heart of the work. And when it came to the final capriccio, utterly pianistic in its conception, we were treated to an almost Chopinesque beauty of sonorous articulation.
Chopin, however, seemed a little too present in Beethoven’s final piano sonata. There were many admirable aspects to Zimerman’s performance, but also some which seemed rather less appropriate. It started off very well, with truly thunderous trills, although I wondered whether the Allegro con brio was taken a little too fast. My doubts concerning this were largely dispelled by the commendable flexibility of tempo Zimerman displayed – and by serene moments of Olympian calm. I did not mind hearing the Revolutionary Etude foreshadowed just before the end of the first movement; indeed, it was salutary to hear the connection, when so often one is told that Chopin, alone amongst Romantic composers, honoured Beethoven by failing to be influenced by him. Moreover, the Pollini-like beauty of the trills in the second movement, without the slightest hint of rigidity, was also something at which truly to wonder. Yet, on the whole, I found this movement in particular too ‘pianistically’ conceived, drawing attention to the instrument and to the pianist rather than to the music. Even the undoubtedly ravishing filigree of the high passages sounded just a touch narcissistic. And whilst there was a splendid expression of joy in the third variation, I had a nagging sense of it being taken unusually fast at least partly because the pianist could. This may be an unfair estimate of his intention, but it did come across just a little like that. And the opening statement of the great theme, almost Gluckian in its noble simplicity – at least in the score – was by turns both just that and excessively manicured. However beautiful the trees, we need always to have our eyes firmly set upon the wood. If only I had not heard Daniel Barenboim perform this work in February at the end of his Beethoven sonata cycle, I might have been less critical; but I had, and so I was.
The Brahms Op.119 Pieces were similarly mixed. I entertained no reservations whatsoever concerning the opening B minor intermezzo. The ‘grey pearl’ to which Clara Schumann so perceptively likened it did indeed ‘look as if … [it was] veiled,’ and was certainly ‘very precious’. Zimerman seemed perfectly attuned to mood, style, and the construction of the piece from that truly Brahmsian interval of the falling third. There was here the profoundest melancholy, but not as Nietzsche so maliciously alleged, the ‘melancholy of impotence’. Instead, there was a true sense of intervallic proliferation, looking back to Bach – here there was certainly a valid connection in the programming – and forward to Webern. The ineffable sadness of the final B minor chords was lain bare for all to hear. In the following intermezzo, its outer sections marked Andantino un poco agitato, Zimerman’s flexibility just about prevented one thinking his basic tempo too fast, but it was a close run thing and this is certainly not how I should understand an andantino, however agitato. There was once again a welcome hint of Chopin in the central waltz, which lilted unforgettably. However, I found the third intermezzo simply too close to Chopin and longed for something more weighty, Klemperer-like even, despite the undeniable structural soundness of Zimerman’s reading. Perhaps the weight had been held in reserve for the concluding rhapsody, I thought, although some passages sounded curiously withdrawn for such forthright music; these contrasts sounded excessive, even wilful. That said, there was a magnificently tumultuous conclusion, which put me in mind of the first piano concerto and swept all before it.
I cannot imagine Zimerman’s performance of the early Szymanowski Variations on a Polish folk theme ever being surpassed. He seemed perfectly attuned to the shifting moods of the variations, and was unabashed in exhibiting the often exacting technique they require. A splendidly exploratory tone was set in the introduction, Debussyan in its ambiguity. The theme again sounded almost French, albeit with an undeniably Polish longing and nostalgia, evoking the Chopin of the mazurkas in its harmonies. Rachmaninov seemed to loom large in a number of the variations, although this may have been as much correspondence as influence. Certainly the passage work of the first and the torrentially cascading octaves of the second sounded as much ‘music for the Steinway’ as that of the Russian composer. This was counterbalanced by a sense of disquiet in the third variation and a rapt stillness in the major-mode sixth variation. The funeral march of the eighth inevitably brought Chopin to mind, but the physical sense of a passing cortège also evoked Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. The fff passages – I imagine they would be thus marked, since I do not have access to a score – were truly thunderous, but never harsh, whilst the final disappearance was a moment of pianistic magic. Debussy reappeared – or at least seemed to, for those of us who know his music better than that of Szymanowski – during the ninth variation: somewhere between Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest and Feux d’artifice, albeit without the individuality of the Frenchman’s harmony. Zimerman’s virtuosity in the finale dispelled any lingering doubts one might have entertained concerning the slightly derivative nature of some of the music. This set of variations received a performance I should unhesitatingly describe as magnificent. Perhaps next time, though, we might have some music from Chopin himself?