Krystian Zimerman Recital - 12 June 2019 - Berlin

                                                Krystian Zimerman - Debussy: Preludes (excerpt) © DG

It was the greatest good fortune that the distinguished artist Krystian Zimerman was giving a recital in Berlin on the evening of June 12 just a couple of days before I set off for the astounding Bach Festival in Leipzig. I decided with great excitement to attend as he seldom comes to Poland to give recitals for various reasons. I feel this world famous pianist, regarded at the highest level everywhere, requires little introduction. It was one of those recitals where little or nothing needs to be said at the conclusion, a sign of true greatness to my mind.

He opened his recital (on his own superb, I felt especially tuned, Steinway piano) with the Brahms Sonata No 3 in F minor Op.5. Brahms composed this mighty sonata when he was barely 20 and when the sonata form itself was considered rather an outmoded. Of course Brahms idolized Beethoven and the personal expressiveness of his sonatas and perhaps was influenced by these grand conceptions. 

The sonata is unconventionally in 5 movements.

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Andante espressivo
  3. Scherzo. Allegro energico - Trio
  4. Intermezzo. Andante molto
  5. Finale. Allegro moderato ma rubato
For the magnificent, noble opening Zimerman abided by the Brahms direction Allegro maestoso which was ‘majestic’ indeed despite what seemed a faster tempo than usual. A true Allegro rather than the Adagio maestoso many pianists adopt. Yet the movement evolved with what I can only term overwhelming grandeur. Zimerman presented the fortissimo chords that cover such a wide range of the keyboard with the greatest control and discipline. The essentially Romantic spirit of the sonata was clearly to be fused into a classical edifice, the architecture of which is truly awesome to behold over the approximately 40 minutes duration. 

From the divine sensitivity he brought to the Andante expressivo it was clear he understood the slow movement as one of the greatest declarations of poetic love in music, the two lyrical themes merging symbolically into a passionate expression of sensual rapture.  Brahms yearning for the impossible love for Clara Schumann ? His great variety of tone and touch indicated mastery of the distinctly Brahmsian tonal palette. He adopted a magnificent tempo in the Scherzo. This dark waltz was so musical and dramatic yet never broke through the sound ceiling of the instrument. 

Brahms gave the Intermezzo the title ‘Rückblick‘ which literally means ‘Remembrance.’ I fancied I heard a Brahms chorale embedded there. Zimerman wound into the virtuosic and triumphant Finale with the greatest majesty. Overall I felt he was possessed of true nobility of soul in his playing with an amplitude of dynamic expressiveness given to few pianists. His control over silence and the communication of musical meaning satisfied the composer’s essential late Romantic intentions, a miraculous monumental construction in sound, in like manner to Chartres cathedral hewn in stone.

After the interval the four Chopin Scherzos. The Vienna of 1831 was not the Vienna of Chopin's earlier visit, harbouring as it now did a resentment of Poles.  Frederick Niecks likened the opening chords of the first B minor Scherzo Op. 20 to 'a shriek of despair' and what follows as the drama of a soul attempting to unsuccessfully break through a wall of horror. The Chopin scherzos are not intended as 'jokes' or 'jests' unless the composer was being ironical concerning this Italian genre - they are far from light-hearted. 

Schumann favourably yet perceptively commented on this work: 'If jest wears such dark veils, how is gravity to clothe itself?' The fury of Chopin at the bloodshed in Warsaw resulting from the November Uprising of 1830, the worries concerning the fate of his family, is countered by an affecting nostalgia for the joys of his last remembered Christmas in Poland. He quotes in luminous variation the Polish Christmas carol Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep, little Jesus) as a perfectly realized lullaby, an expression of innocence and nostalgia for the happiness of his youthful family days at Christmas  in Poland. It may also have forcibly returned to mind his love of Konstancja Gładkowska, as we also hear a quotation from the song Życzenie (The Wish) inspired by her.

In Chopin’s letters from that time spent in Vienna, certain motifs recur obsessively:

‘I curse the moment I left… In the salon I pretend to be calm, but on returning home I fulminate at the piano… I return, play, cry, laugh, go to bed, put out the light and dream always of you… Everything I’ve seen thus far abroad seems to me […] unbearable and only makes me long for home, for those blissful moments which I couldn’t appreciate… It seems like a dream, a stupor, that I’m with you – and what I hear is just a dream’.

Henry Fuseli The Nightmare 1781

Again the anvil of the demonic opening chords strike, as in the opening sabre slash of this violent piece, something the mentally unstable Polish novelist Stanisław Przybyszewski likened to 'a scream of the soul'. English publishers, so fond of titling his music, referred to it rather inappropriately as Le banquet infernale. The turbulent rush of dissonant angry emotions continues unabated until the conclusion.

Zimerman fully grasped this unarguably Polish national discontent contrasted with the sensitive lullaby but strangely I felt he could have made even more of it.

The second B-flat minor Scherzo Op. 31 of 1836 followed in another Romantic, dramatic, chiaroscuro scene reminiscent of a storm by the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa. Recognized immediately as a masterpiece in the past and familiarly as 'the governess scherzo' - many governesses in aristocratic households played it rather indifferently I would imagine. The opening phrase Chopin always wanted to sound as if it was what we might term an 'existential question'. Students of his found it next to impossible to satisfy him in this requirement.

Zimerman brilliantly and tempestuously created a passionate expression of tumultuous discontent mixed with the melancholic reverie in the Arcadian Trio, recreating the complex Polish emotion of żal in a word. The coda became a powerful and mighty culmination of the drama under his fingers. The English musicologist Arthur Hedley after praising the work's ecstatic lyricism, provides an observation all too relevant in today's world of recording : ‘Excessive performance may have dimmed the brightness of this work, but should not blind us to its merits as thrilling and convincing music.’

The third Scherzo in C-sharp minor Op.39 (1839) is a work of the greatest distinction and imaginative invention that emerged from the period on Majorca and the influence of the monastery at Valldemossa. The work opens with the detached  feeling of an abstract, disinherited mind - a type of frenzied atheism. All the more shocking then the appearance of a chorale sung by monks, interspersed with characteristically Chopinesque arabesques of falling flowers or the settling of magical diamond dust. At a certain point in this motif of mysterious harmonic progressions, the E major key gives way to a softened, reflective and intensely melancholic E minor followed by moments of purest poetry. 

The scherzo was dedicated to the extraordinarily physical Adolf Gutmann, Chopin's favourite pupil, who possessed hands that could cope with the breadth of chord challenges with ease. With his extraordinary digital dexterity, Zimerman expressed the contrast between fatalistic granite chords and the light, glittering and seductive tender arabesques, the ghosts of Chopin's youthful style brillante, to perfection.

The final Scherzo in E major Op. 54 dates from 1842-3 and in many ways resembles a Ballade. The preceding scherzos fluctuate between the extremes of demonic possession and that of dreamy suspension hovering nostalgically above the strife of the world.  This is overall a far quieter scherzo.  

"Two categories of expression form this pianistic poem, which delights us with the immaculate beauty of its sound: the expression of play and the expression of love [...] is filled with thoughtful music, gazing at distant horizons, sounding like the expression of pure yet ardent love. Such music as Norwid called ‘the shape of love’ "         (Mieczysław Tomaszewski)

The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who idolized Chopin, asked in a letter from Paris:
‘What is music?’

‘It is a marvel. It has a place between thought and what is seen; it is a dim mediator between spirit and matter, allied to and differing from both; it is spirit wanting the measure of time and matter which can dispense with space.’

[Heinrich Heine, ‘Ninth Letter’, in The Works of Heinrich Heine, iv: The Salon, tr. Charles Godfrey Leland (Hans Breitmann) (London, 1893), 242]

Suddenly I felt that in a way Zimerman had treated the cycle of scherzos almost as four movements of one integrated work, moving from the disruptive emotional frenzy of the B minor through many successive moods, travails of love and emotional turmoils of life to an almost phlegmatic resignation and acceptance in E major.

However the treat of the evening was yet to come. In a group of encores, Zimerman first played two of the youthful Brahms Ballades Op.10, movingly infused with the composer's blossoming love for Clara Schumann. So eloquent, tender and reflective a performance. This was followed by a group of three Chopin mazurkas (Op.24 No. 1 in G minor, No. 2 in C major and No.4 in B-flat minor), on each occasion informally inviting the audience into a uniquely intimate musical embrace. They were absolute perfection in idiom, rhythm, tonal colour and refinement - divine Chopin. 

At one point his body language and inclusive, warm and friendly gestures towards us resembled an invitation to dance. A quite extraordinary wholehearted musical experience I have never before encountered with any concert pianist. To gently conclude a recital that had been received with rapturous applause, he sensitively closed the keyboard cover. It was as if the mighty hall of the Berlin Philharmonic had shrunk around him to the dimensions of an intimate Parisian salon, enclosing us all in an affecting climat de Chopin. 

I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the artists' room after the recital together with the  many distinguished Poles who came to congratulate him. I found him to be such a warm, charming, friendly and engaging man, generous with his time and conversation, quite at variance with the rather demanding image one generally receives of his character.

A memorable recital on every musical, spiritual and personal level, the memory of which I shall carry with me to the end of my days.


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