Monday, December 05, 2016

An interview with Krystian Zimerman (reproduced with kind permission of PIANIST Magazine)

Speaking of Krystian Zimerman's 60th birthday, to celebrate I am posting below a feature I wrote about him for PIANIST Magazine in 2007. Time flies. I hope you enjoy it. JD

Krystian Zimerman. Photo: Hirochi Yamamoto/DGG

There aren’t many pianists today who can be thought of as cult figures, but Krystian Zimerman is one of them. Catapulted to fame on winning the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1975, in the days when competitions still counted, Zimerman was instantly one of the hottest properties on the piano scene. And with the years and the decades, his artistry has kept on growing. A recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon found him becoming the only pianist to record with both Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein (the maestros were notorious arch-rivals) and his recordings of works such as the Chopin Ballades, Debussy Preludes and Ravel Concertos are regarded as definitive. Awards, acclaim and adoration seem to follow him wherever he goes.

Many musicians would be content with such stardom. But not Zimerman. His extraordinary personal standards have become ever more demanding – principally upon himself. He has a reputation for perfectionism, but this is rather an understatement. His ever-questing approach to music led him to form his own orchestra with which to tour the two Chopin concertos conducting from the keyboard back in 1999, the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. He travels with his own piano, which he always prepares himself – he’s an expert technician. As for recitals, his programme planning can be a drawn-out process. When we spoke in mid-January, he was still working out what he will play for his Royal Festival Hall recital on 27 May. Pianophiles, for their part, would turn out to hear him play nursery rhymes.

Even so, don’t concert promoters jump up and down gnashing their teeth while they wait for his decision? “I don’t know about the teeth,” Zimerman quips, “and as for the jumping, it depends… Perhaps on the floor is my picture!” Much laughter. “I am really looking forward to playing in London,” he assures us. “I will give the best possible programme I can, and I have been working day and night on it for the past half year.”

Photo: Kasskara/DGG

The difficulty is, he says, that he’s planning programmes up to the end of 2010, taking account of several anniversaries – among them, Chopin, Liszt and Schumann – and trying not to duplicate pieces in locations where he’s played frequently, while also catering to halls to which he’s relatively new (he played in Portugal for the first time last year). “As you can imagine, there is a temptation to use in new venues some of the programmes I have played in the past; but I cannot, because the next concert is a place where I’ve played more than 60 concerts. I not only have to plan geographically, because of the piano transport, but also programmatically so that the pieces are being used in a sufficiently economic way. For every artist, our repertoire is our capital.”

Zimerman has designed a special van to transport his piano (“it breaks down every half an hour,” he grumbles) and has himself made a number of tools to lift, shift and shunt the three-legged giant. Some listeners are astonished to learn that he’s his own technician, but Zimerman gives a verbal shrug: “It’s a wooden box with strings, but it’s like a human being: you want to take care of it. Basically the point is to make my life a little easier. I used to play concerts in the 1970s and 1980s on different pianos and I would be fighting with the instruments, wondering why they were like this. As I was already working earlier on making spare parts, and in my free time I was making some money from this to survive, I learned how these parts are being made and how different they can be in various pianos. So when I play certain pieces that I know depend on a particular part of the mechanism, I’m trying to implement in my instrument a mechanism on which I don’t have to fight in order to achieve this quality.

“In the last five years I developed new methods that give me much greater freedom and variety. I am very proud of my Tokyo recital, which will be on DVD, containing Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Gershwin. These are four completely different ways of sound-making, four completely different ways of piano-playing, four completely different personalities, yet I managed to make a keyboard where I could play the whole programme to my own satisfaction. That was a tremendous success for me and it should be on the market within the next six months.”

A Zimerman recital is always an event – and a comparatively rare one. He has usually limited himself to 45-50 concerts per year, and in addition he’s had more than his fair share of health troubles. Pollution from the coal mines in his native Silesia left him prone to lung problems, and last year a leg injury forced the cancellation of an American tour. He has, moreover, strong views on the illicit recording of concerts by audience members, and various venues’ unwillingness or inability to prevent this has sometimes made him reluctant to return to them. But even if fans are occasionally left frustrated, such feelings evaporate when he does play – one bar in that pure-gold tone, one phrase turned with such wit, tenderness and wisdom.

Zimerman was born in Zabrze, a small mining town near Katowice, in 1956. The only child of an engineer who was a keen amateur musician, as a boy he took the piano for granted; he was startled, he says, “when I discovered that not every house has a piano”. He had only one teacher: Andrzej Jasinski, who was based at the music school in Katowice, to which town the teenage Zimerman used to commute by train at unearthly hours of the morning (he has nocturnal tendencies even today). Jasinski, he says, has recently been the subject of a documentary film: “It shows exactly what he is, so honest and without any poses, very natural.”

At 18, Zimerman was then the youngest pianist to have won the Chopin Competition, and as a Pole himself – and one who bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Chopin – he captured the public imagination immediately. His first recordings included LPs of four Mozart sonatas, the Chopin waltzes and the Brahms sonatas, which were all critically acclaimed – but he has never authorised their release on CD. Admirers of his white-hot, visionary interpretations of the Chopin sonatas waited with bated breath for the recording. They’re still waiting. But Zimerman, who says he’s currently finishing a disc of Szymanowski piano music that he began in 1991, drops a loaded hint that among three more CDs he’s planning for DG in the years ahead, the longed-for sonatas may yet materialise. “I think I finally figured out how to do this,” he remarks – adding wryly, “though I have been supposed to record them since 1975!”

photo: Kasskara/DGG
Another great Chopin pianist was a vital influence in Zimerman’s life: no less a figure than Arthur Rubinstein. Zimerman would go to play to him whenever the opportunity arose and says that he’s still benefiting from this legendary musician’s insights: “I find myself almost every day profiting from this period in my life and building on it,” he says. “There were things that I didn’t think of at that point as being possible; only now do I come to understand their full potential.”

On Zimerman’s studio wall hangs a drawing of Rubinstein by Jean Cocteau. “We went to have coffee in a little bar in Paris near the Avenue Foch and he was talking about many, many things. He was wearing a suit he hadn’t used for about 40 years. At some point he put his hand in his pocket to look for a handkerchief, found this piece of paper and almost cleaned his mouth with it! Then he unfolded it and said, ‘Oh, look, Jean drew this’. I was really stupid and didn’t know who ‘Jean’ was. He said ‘Jean Cocteau. You can have it,’ and gave it to me…”

The 25th anniversary of Rubinstein’s death fell last December. Zimerman well remembers that tragic evening a quarter of a century ago. “It was a terrible shock. I had a recital that day – of all pieces, I played the ‘Funeral March’ Sonata of Chopin, and it was one of the best performances I ever did of it. Two days earlier I had spoken to Rubinstein – I telephoned and he invited me to his house. But I had a slight flu and as I wouldn’t like to be the one he caught the flu from, I told him that I preferred to speak on the phone and I would come and visit him when I was next in Switzerland. Then, after the recital, someone came backstage and told me Rubinstein had died. I couldn’t speak for several hours. It’s been 25 years now, but you never really get used to this feeling. I can now think peacefully about it and I am glad he had such a great life. It contained enough to fill several human lives, with sense and with direction. Such a positive life, full of the wonderful joy of giving to people and sharing with them!”

In 1981, Zimerman and his wife, Maja, were away on tour when martial law was declared in Poland. They elected not to return and subsequently settled in the Swiss countryside not far from Basel, where they still live today with their two teenage children, Claudia and Ricki. Here Zimerman has built what appears to be an ideal life, home and workplace, with soundproofed studio, space for his plentiful archive of recordings and books, and panoramic views across the Jura mountains.

Nevertheless, he still finds travel stimulating. “You can find, when you go somewhere different, you suddenly have new ideas, you get inspired, you see things from another angle,” he says. He usually spends two months per year in Japan and the same or more in the States. “Often I don’t go out of my apartment, but the reason for being there is that my brain dares to think differently and I start to solve problems which I can’t solve sitting here with the most fantastic facilities.” You’re not unlikely to find him whiling away the evening in a late-opening bookshop in New York or Tokyo; he’s much saddened by the evaporation of his favourite US record stores due to Internet retailing and other, more pernicious issues.

But after 2009 you may not find him in America at all. He’s increasingly reluctant to visit a superpower where he feels much in politics and society has gone badly awry. For a while, he says, he won’t plan further tours there, beyond what’s already in the diary. “For the last seven years the political developments in this country have made me less and less motivated to go there. Maybe something will change in the next years, but at the moment I don’t feel comfortable with so many things in the States. I think if you don’t have the right motivation to do something, you shouldn’t do it. There’s an awareness that comes with age: you feel increasingly that you should start to be a grown-up and make a clear stand. I thought I should take the risk and start to act and speak what I feel.

“A lot of people think that when they choose the next president suddenly everything will be forgotten and the world will be fine. No. I think when the damage is done, first you have to undo the damage. You have to face the consequences and try to repair what was destroyed. Thousands of people were killed in a completely unnecessary war that was completely wrong, and it will just not do to change the president and pull out of the process there – it will not undo the damage. I think it needs much, much more. And so much tension has been created that this will sooner or later break out in the form of terrorism. I’m almost sure that in 20 or 30 years’ time we will think of this era not as a time of fighting terrorism, but a time of creating it, and President Bush will definitely be one of the persons, together with Mr Rumsfeld and a few others, who will have to take responsibility for this.”

Zimerman’s complex existence fortunately has room for fun as well as hard work and strong convictions. One of his great enthusiasms is ice-diving. What’s the attraction? “For me it’s the function of going into another world,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be terribly interesting. If you see sharks or whales it’s fantastic, but that isn’t the point. The whole sensation of getting into another physical surrounding where your body functions completely differently, where you have no portable phone and internet access, it’s already paying back the effort.” For many people, I suggest, listening to music has the same effect. “Exactly!” says Zimerman. “And maybe that’s why it’s such a joy for me, maybe that’s why I see a parallel here.”

And the fans flocking time and again to Zimerman’s concerts are in no doubt that that’s what his playing does for them. Zimerman carries us into another universe of sound, on a level that most others can barely imagine. All that perfectionism has only one aim: to produce maximum quality for his audience. Let him play anything, anywhere, under whatever conditions he demands; we’ll be there. Hearing him at the Royal Festival Hall in 1980 was one of my own formative experiences; it showed me that music was indeed a world all its own. Without that, I wouldn’t be here now, speaking to him. “What would life be without music?” says Zimerman. “My God…”

This article first appeared in PIANIST Magazine in 2007

Big birthday for Zimerman

Krystian Zimerman is 60 today. I send all my love and respect to this immeasurably great artist, a recital by whom was the revelation that first inspired the teenaged me to make music central to my life. And more recently, I will never forget having to be interviewer-foil to him in the pre-concert talk when he unexpectedly turned himself into a brilliant comedian and had the Royal Festival Hall rolling in the aisles.


Sunday, December 04, 2016

Top 12 Books for Music Lovers 2016

We all need a bit of escapism and there's still nowt like a good book to carry us away into another world. This has been a pretty interesting year for books about music, perhaps surprisingly so under the circumstances. A lot of them have crossed my desk and here is a selection of my personal favourites, with which you might like to fill your Christmas stockings.

Robert Schumann: Advice to Young Musicians. Revisited by Steven Isserlis
Faber & Faber

Cellist Steven Isserlis, a great Schumann devotee, has adapted the composer's slender volume of aphorisms for the budding musician and added thoughts of his own that amplify them for the 21st century. They are beautifully turned and succinctly expressed. "Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm," Schumann declares. Isserlis, noting that the business of music can sap that enthusiasm, responds: "That makes it all the more important, then, to remember why we wanted to be musicians in the first place: because music lives in our hearts. And we have to keep it there."

Schumann's Music and ETA Hoffmann's Fiction
John MacAuslan
Cambridge University Press

The former administrative director of the National Gallery, John MacAuslan, has produced a fascinating book (based on his recent doctoral thesis) about Schumann's relationship with the writings of ETA Hoffmann. The tales of Hoffmann pervade so much of the composer's early piano music - yet oddly seem not to be required reading for piano students - that no amount of exploration could ever be too much. Kreisleriana, for a start, will never sound the same again once you've looked into this. Bach, Beethoven and the writings of Jean Paul (on a novel by whom Papillons is based) are crucial figures too as MacAuslan traces, delicately and precisely, the thought processes of this most literary of composers.

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
Anna Beer

Ignore the first part of the title. Only a publisher could have added such a tag to a book about the struggles for recognition of those fine composers - from the 17th to the 20th centuries - who happened to be women and had always to contend with exactly such sentiments as "sweet". Anna Beer tells the story of eight fascinating figures, in different locations, eras and societies. She blasts apart some myths, too: Clara Schumann is shown on walks outpacing Robert, and the supposedly waif-like Lili Boulanger parties all night. And there's resilience all round, from Fanny Mendelssohn's grit-like determination to Elizabeth Maconchy as a young mum falling asleep at her piano. Now plenty of scope remains for a Volume 2, and hopefully many more.

Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet
Edward Dusinberre
Faber & Faber

The first violinist of the Takács Quartet takes us on a forensically examined yet often very funny ride through his musical life and his ensemble's, shining it through the prism of the Beethoven string quartets, a lifelong journey in themselves. Dusinberre was recruited as a young violinist from Britain by the three highly experience Hungarians of the quartet after Gabor Takács-Nagy departed, not least so that he could be shaped into the leader they wanted: "Asked by András [Feher] about my professional chamber music experience, I described the handful of paid concerts my student quartet had performed while I was at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Juilliard. A highlight was our appearance at a Downing Street Christmas party hosted by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - from my account of this illustrious engagement I omitted my fifteen-pound fee and the fact that she had criticised our choice of too slow and lugubrious a tempo in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'."

Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar
Oliver Hilmes, trs Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press

The life of Franz Liszt springs off the page in Hilmes's well-turned prose - and what a topic it is, filled with characters larger than life and intrigues to match. Even if one might wish for more consideration of the music alongside the scandals and the soul-searching, Liszt can admittedly be tricky in this department because he was so desperately prolific. I'm inclined simply to suggest a lot of listening alongside the reading of this vivid and exact book.

Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works
Edward Klorman
Cambridge University Press

The Juilliard professor and violist Edward Klorman explores the deeply civilised nature of Mozart's chamber music: the balance of conversational exchanges within the music and the cross-currents between the musical and the human at every level. In an age where the Enlightenment sometimes feels as if it must have happened to another planet, there is a lot to learn from the humanity and perfectionism in Mozart's music and the means by which it is achieved. This is one chiefly for the musicians, but its message can, should and does go further.

Music for Life
Fiona Maddocks
Faber & Faber

Most of us turn to music for support at emotionally challenging moments. In this personal selection of "music to see you through", Fiona Maddocks, music critic of The Observer, gives succinct thoughts on the emotional import of works ranging from the evident to the surprising, in categories ranging from humour to mourning. It's one of those short-sectioned, dip-in books, but Maddocks' writing is as exquisitely chiselled as the finest cut crystal and involves no need to ramble. Some of the pictures are fun (there's one of a car half-submerged in Venice's Grand Canal) and one wishes they could have been bigger and brighter. The book looks like a chocolate box, but its content is meaty.

Carols from King's
Alexandra Coghlan
BBC Books

One occasional measure of a really good book is the thought "how come nobody did this before?" This is the young critic Alexandra Coghlan's first book and she has homed in unerringly on what is probably the strongest untapped Christmas present market in the British musical sphere: the beloved Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge, of Nine Lessons and Carols. Here she gives more than a history of that event. This is really a history of the Christmas carol and indeed of Christmas itself, with engaging, objective and often subtly humorous writing.

The Faber Music Piano Anthology
Collected and edited by Melanie Spanswick
Faber Music

This one is for the pianists - the budding pianists, the lapsed pianists, the would-be pianists, and the piano teachers looking for ideas and motivation for their pupils. Melanie Spanswick brings together a delicious collection of short pieces carefully chosen according to progressive level, variety and concision, but happily non-dependent on exam syllabuses. For those who need new choices for practising and sometimes feel a bit daunted by the quantity of options, and unsure of their difficulty, it helps to solve the problem in one easy package. Choices range from Für Elise to a Satie Gnossienne and from a Fauré Romance sans paroles to a Snuffbox Waltz, no less, by Dargomyzhsky.

Mozart: The Man Revealed
John Suchet
Elliott & Thompson

Classic FM's splendid presenter and author of several tomes about Beethoven (including a brilliant three-volume novel), John Suchet has turned his hand to Mozart, bringing the dizzying talent, impossible father, roller-coaster life and heavenly music to life in his typically readable, direct style. With a big Mozart year ahead - the 225th anniversary of WAM's death - this is a timely book that should appeal across the board.

The Noise of Time
Julian Barnes

Scary for any smaller-time novelist to find a literary giant such as Julian Barnes producing a book based on the life of Shostakovich, but this is a wonderful creation: the writing is as concentrated as vodka as Barnes envisages, meditates and in a way deconstructs the psyche of his subject within the claustrophobic atmosphere of Soviet Russia. The image of the composer waiting daily with his suitcase, expecting deportation, is very difficult to shake off.

1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery
Turtle Bunbury
Gill Books

Not a music book per se, but if you love to put music in context, you might find it irresistible. The Irish historian takes us on a rollicking journey through the international upheavals, inventions, conflicts, famines, personalities, beginnings and endings from January to December of one year. It's a cumulative portrait of a world in flux, taking in the rapprochement between a German explorer and a Native American tribe as well as circus presentations, the founding of the Mormon Church, the writing of "Oh, Susanna!" and the death of Felix Mendelssohn - and the mysterious did-they-didn't-they relationship between that composer and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind. (Incidentally, a thorough study of the evidence by George Biddlecombe, published in the Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, has concluded that they probably did.)

[And if, after all that, anyone still wants to read Ghost Variations, you can get the e-book from the link in the sidebar or order a paperback, for which please visit the book's Facebook page for further details...]

Monday, November 28, 2016

Schubert's Autumn

Happy Monday.

Ludwig Rellstab 

Es rauschen die Winde
So herbstlich und kalt;
Verödet die Fluren,
Entblättert der Wald.
Ihr blumigen Auen!
Du sonniges Grün!
So welken die Blüten
Des Lebens dahin. 

Es ziehen die Wolken
So finster und grau;
Verschwunden die Sterne
Am himmlischen Blau!
Ach, wie die Gestirne
Am Himmel entflieh'n,
So sinket die Hoffnung
Des Lebens dahin! 

Ihr Tage des Lenzes
Mit Rosen geschmückt,
Wo ich den Geliebten
Ans Herze gedrückt!
Kalt über den Hügel
Rauscht, Winde, dahin!
So sterben die Rosen
Der Liebe dahin. 

(English translation here)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Roll over, Riverdance: this is Rhinal Tap

In case you haven't yet seen this extract from The Nose, courtesy of the Royal Opera House and director Barry Kosky, here it is.

And here's my review of this gleefully nuts early Shostakovich opera, at the Critics' Circle website (I forgot to post it when it first came out, but hope it's still reasonably entertaining).

For Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera debut you could only expect the unexpected. The Australian director, head of Berlin’s Komische Oper, picked a work that has never before been staged at Covent Garden. It’s an extravagant, radical and often very loud take on Gogol’s surreal story in which Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose has gone walkabout and is living the high life in St Petersburg. Premiered in 1930, but dreamed up three years earlier when the composer was 21, it’s so off-the-wall and tonally anarchic that it could almost have been written three decades later...

...Not for nothing has Kosky (going against his own policy at the Komische Oper, where he prefers opera in its original language) plumped for English rather than Russian; the earthy and up-to-date new translation is by David Pountney. It’s helpful to understand it in real time as it careers by with reference piling on reference: Cabaret, Yiddish theatre, Freudian association, Jewish jokes, Russian legend, this Nose knows it all. “Oy gevalt! The 8.23 to Kitezh has been cancelled – they couldn’t find it...”
If you want to read symbolism into it, help yourself. Is The Nose about keeping people in their hierarchical place, or about losing another person who’s part of you, or a euphemism for fear of losing another body part, with everything that implies? Or is it just pre-Python surreal nonsense? Maybe all, possibly none: Kosky lets the options flit by in front of our, er, noses, and leaves the decision to us....