Krystian Zimerman - Royal Festival Hall, 27 May 2008
Bach Partita No.2 in C minor
Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Brahms 4 Pieces for piano, Op.119
Szymanowski Variations on a Polish folk theme in B minor, Op.10
A piano is a machine. Sounds are produced when the hammers hit the strings, not when the fingers hit the keyboard, a fundamental fact often ignored when we talk about a particular pianist's 'tone'. If I strike a key, it sounds the same as if any other pianist had struck it. It's quite different from instruments like the violin, where you'd spot instantly whether it was me or Joshua Bell drawing the bow across a string. With the piano, it's only in a sequence of notes, their relative duration, volume, pressure, that the characteristics of the individual emerge.
Most pianists, if they address the inevitability of tone quality at all, do so in generalised ways like selecting a particular piano. Krystian Zimerman's approach is far more interventionist. A recent FT interview reports that he "impregnates the hammers that strike the strings with specific chemicals, works on his piano's voicing and sound, has devised his own method of transportation, and permits no other technician to touch his instrument."
Unfortunately I missed his discussion with Jessica Duchen prior to this evening's concert, so I'm not sure exactly what his special preparations were. But from the bright, pinging tone, almost clavichord-like, of the opening Bach Partita it was obvious that his adjustments had been radical.
I've never heard a piano sound quite like this. The notes popped out hard and round like pearls, each perfectly self-contained. Combined with Zimerman's immaculate technique, each note evenly articulated, his lilting romantic gloss, and idiosyncratic tempos it was quite unlike any Bach I've ever heard. (Unlike any Bach that Bach himself would have heard, too, so not for the purists.) Zimerman invited us to inspect the brushstrokes rather than look at the whole painting, and I was happy to absorb the sound on a purely sensory level. It was all over far too soon - with Zimerman's Eddie Van Halen arm-swinging flourish hinting there might be a surprising hint of showbiz tart lurking beneath the fearsomely brainy exterior.
Next came the clever bit. Zimerman sloped off for a couple of minutes (no more), and a technician sped on stage, whipped the keyboard out of the piano, and replaced it with another one (see photo right). A quick screw into place, and that was it.
I'm not sure exactly what the swap achieved from a technical perspective, but the sound changed dramatically to a far more conventional tone, the notes velvety and diffused at the edges.
Zimerman's fantastic, near effortless technical control seemed in some ways a hindrance in the final Beethoven sonata, which only truly comes alive when it's stood up to and wrestled down. A pianist like Barenboim who finds it at the limits of his technical capacities can bring a more vivid sense of struggle. From Zimerman, it all sounded just a bit too easy, a mountain that was soared over rather than scaled.
If the piano was tinkered with again during the interval, I didn't notice. Zimerman seemed more in tune with the Brahms, extrovert but intimate, and the luridly spectacular Szymanowski than he had with the Beethoven. He exuded a simple and engaging joy in performing and a ravishingly supple technique, every note precisely at his command. It wasn't quite heart-stopping stuff, but then that's not really the nature of these particular pieces anyway. And it didn't stop him receiving a thunderous reception, possibly as much for who he is and the simple fact that he chose to perform here as for the performance itself. No encore though.
A lengthy and interesting interview here.