Royal Festival Hall
Nocturne in F-sharp minor, op.15 no.2
Piano sonata no.2 in B-flat minor, op.35
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31
Piano sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60
After the mixed fortunes of Murray Perahia’s Chopin last week, here was a Chopin pianist on excellent form, so much so that Krystian Zimerman, known, amongst other things, for not giving encores, did just that, concluding with a magnificently poised yet flowing account of the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2. The first half witnessed the second sonata framed by the F-sharp minor Nocturne, op.15 no.2 and the second scherzo. I liked the idea of starting with a nocturne, whose ternary form provided a splendid introduction to much of the music to follow; so did the magic with which Zimerman invested the reprise of the opening material, which was anything but a mere reprise. Structure was equally clear in the scherzo, so much more ‘natural’, less studied than much of what had been heard from Perahia, declamatory where necessary but with no loss to the musical line. The reversion to the minor mode was especially well handled.
With the opening of the B-flat minor Sonata, Zimerman plunged us in medias res. His flexibility of tempo was utterly convincing, following, as it did, the demands of the music. If sometimes extreme, navigation between extremes proved perhaps the most impressive aspect of all in projection of Chopin’s quite un-Classical handling of sonata form. The recapitulation was rightly better understood as a climax than a return – and what a climax! Sadly, some idiots in the audience, on whom more anon, decided they must disrupt the performance by applauding; Zimerman was more graceful in response than he had any need to be. Contrast between the extremes of scherzo and trio was handled with equal mastery, mediation between the two again proving the key to Zimerman’s success. If the trio were an oasis of calm in the middle, one could sense troubled waters beneath the surface, and seduction too: sirens perhaps? The pianist’s command of line throughout was matched by thoroughly musical virtuosity and the aristocratic touch Chopin’s music demands. Zimerman brought an inexorable, almost Mussorgskian tread to the funeral march, itself matched by poignant dignity in the central section. Rubato was unerringly ‘right’, whilst the hush for the cantilena, when coughers permitted, was something at which to marvel – and in which to be involved. There was nothing ‘observed’ about this performance. The grief occasioned by the return of the opening material was all the more powerful second time around: again, climax rather than mere reprise. And there was no short-changing Chopin in the strangeness, radicalism, and virtuosity of the finale.
Zimerman again meant business from the very opening of the third sonata – and again one could but marvel at his technique, never more so than in the evenness of the left-hand (and right-hand, for that matter) passagework. Transitions were again fundamental to his approach, which paid off handsomely. I did not, however, feel that the second subject in this first movement sang as sometimes it can, even if its structural integrity were never in doubt. Inevitability was not quite the right word, for we heard something arguably more appropriate to Chopin: narrative choices being made and followed. Zimerman seemed keen to highlight the work’s kinship with the second sonata, the scherzo clearly a brother not only to the scherzo of the second, but also to the latter’s finale. The relationship between the Largo and the cortège of the earlier Marcia funèbre was more subtle, yet equally apparent. Where Perahia last week had often seemed impatient with ‘mere’ ornamentation, Zimerman demonstrated the essential quality of what might seem inessential. Indeed, at times I was put in mind of the profound subtleties of late Brahms, not least in the interplay between voices and the cross-rhythms. Bach of course looms large, yet vocal melody always emerges supreme. In the finale, I wondered on occasion whether virtuosity was a little too much on open display, yet there remained a magnificent defiance to Zimerman’s approach, which ultimately meant that victory was hard-won enough. The following Barcarolle provided rhythmic lilt, seductive charm, and a real, if never unduly pictorial, sense of Venetian waters: a kindred spirit, I thought, for Luigi Nono. Chopin’s melodic and harmonic contours were finely traced, a rather Lisztian abandon announcing itself before the waters subsided.
So this was a fine recital indeed, a fully worthy contribution to the Chopin anniversary – and to London’s ongoing celebration of Polish culture, Polska! What a pity, then, that some in the audience did their best to blight it. Even by the usual standards, unstifled coughing was rampant and almost constant, whether between or during movements. The pianist was clearly exercised by one particular contributor, to whom he appeared to speak at one point. Applause again intruded during the third sonata. Bottles were opened, though I am pretty sure the Royal Festival Hall does not allow drinking during recitals. Near me, a heavy breather and a bracelet jangler ensured that their contributions could not go unnoticed. Is it really too much to ask that those attending musical performances show consideration for those attempting to concentrate upon the music?