Catching Up - Last things First

Krystian Zimerman gave a fantastic concert in Basingstoke last night.

Bach: Partita No 2
Beethoven Piano Sonata No 32, Op 111
Brahms: Four Pieces, Op 119
Szymanowski: Variations on a Polish Theme, Op 10

The hall was about a third empty which was understandable on the Sunday night before Bank Holiday which was half term too.

The Bach Partita was delivered a la Argerich as a piece pianistic bravura and its one of those Bach works which I think work better on a concert grand, so that's no bad thing in my book. Zimerman is nothing if not a thinking pianist and choices on dynamics and voicing were fascinating. The galloping Rondeaux was a joy. I was Zimerman would do an organ recital one day soon!

I should say that Zimerman has scarcely smiled before at concerts when I've seen him live, but I sense he's in a jollier frame of mind at the moment. Not only was he smiling broadly as he took the applause for the Bach, but he joked with the audience too. For the first time in my experience, the keyboard and hammers were changed on the piano between the Bach and the Beethoven - a sensible step for a thinking pianist. Zimerman apologised as he sat down to play Op111 and cracked a joke about having a different piano at home for Bach but not being able to bring both with him. How many other pianists crack a gag before playing Beethoven's last sonata. I think its fair to say he's much more relaxed!

KZ gave the Beethoven last time he was at Basingstoke some years ago - his reading seemed much less fraught this time. The towering grandeur of the first movement seemed to be tamed somewhat but still has the impression of a pianist being challenged to drive a racing car on ice. The second movement was tightly ordered and argued but never rushed and the final moments were ethereal but never striving to be other-worldy.

After interval we had Brahms' last piano works and these were a neat echo back to the Op 118 set we had last time I heard him in Basingstoke. This set contains none of the naive charm of the earlier set for me and the main highlight here was Zimerman's balance of Brahms whimsy (which can get annoying), his raw passion (which is often mistaken for faux Beethoven) and his harmonic innovation (which is often missed). The ambiguity of late Brahms is often - and misguidedly in my view, played out as sentiment. The true power of Brahms in my book is that the hidden depths of his music often reveal emotions which are the complete opposite of the appearance of the shallows. New Brahmsians beware - he is normally at least the opposite of what he seems! Zimerman captured the youthful heroic grandeur of the final Rhapsody well and then let it decay into a old man's visionary quality- this reading captured all those difficulties with Brahms so well. If only KZ would agree to DG releasing the early recordings of the Brahms sonatas.

The word on the streets is that KZ will never record again - but I found myself wishing he would hitch up with the Hyperion record label. The Hyperion engineers would serve him with a better sound than DG I'm sure. This would be a boon because it is tragic to think future generations won't hear KZ's interpretation of Szymanowski piano works.

The op 10 Variations on a Polish theme were I expect, new to most in the audience. They were delivered with a virtuosic brilliance which in itself was breathtaking. I was reminded of why we should regard KZ as one of the most exciting pianists of our time - huge chords echoed round the hall with astonishing power. The piece is varied and colourful as the best of Szymanowski: but its also very accessible for the new listener and I wondered why I hadn't come across it before. It was brilliantly delivered and KZ seemed very happy at the conclusion as it brought the house down. He is a modest man - on his third curtain call he seemed to be indicating it was all down to the piano and nothing to do with him -more laughter! And at the fourth call he feigned a legless tiredness which again drew laughter. I've only heard him give an encore once and that was because a war had broken out! But I look forward to the London concert now with renewed faith that there are at least two thinking virtuosi on the piano concert circuit - the other being Grigory Sokolov. We are indeed blessed.


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