Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Return of the king

Tom and I have accumulated a cast of musician's nicknames that somehow resembles Alice in Wonderland. There's a Bishop, a Baron, a Count and, of course, several delightful Queens! But there is only one king. Having spent five years in Denmark, where kings tend to be called Frederick or Christian, Tom has dubbed our favourite pianist King Krystian. Last Thursday, Krystian Zimerman came back to the Festival Hall for a recital that simply blew our socks off.

Over the last 25 years I've missed maybe two of Krystian's London concerts - I hope not more than that - so by now my expectations of his playing are of course astrononimcal. But however much I expect of him, I'm always astonished, devastated and humbled by how far he goes. He always discovers some new truth that makes your heart stop for a second or more; while the emotional range of the whole is nothing less than phenomenal. On Thursday he began with the most angelic of Mozart sonatas and progressed, via the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the Chopin Fourth Ballade, towards some mazurkas and the B flat minor sonata at completely the other end of the spectrum. And while the Mozart was as pure and exquisite as I've ever heard it, the Ravel as exciting and the Ballade radiant with that elemental energy that few can truly sustain through its coda, the second half was where the extreme magic happened.

The Op.24 mazurkas finish with one of my favourites, in B flat minor - which KZ made into a bridge towards the sonata in the same key, its conclusion suspended in mid air like a premonition. And finally the sonata revealed everything he had saved up until then. In the funeral march, the sound of the piano somehow doubled in size - and just when you thought you'd heard it all, at the climax of the march's return, down went the soft pedal. The sonoric effect was absolutely extraordinary: comparable only to a black gauze curtain falling in front of a brilliantly lit stage. I don't believe I've heard a sound like that come out of a piano before. The standing ovation begged him for an encore, but I have the impression he never plays an encore after that sonata and I don't think anyone could blame him. After such a journey of emotional devastation, it's amazing that he could even stand up.

Though a totally different musician from Grigory Sokolov, Zimerman has one thing in common with him: he gives five hundred per cent of himself in a concert. Musicians who can do this have always been the ones I admire the most - but now I understand why that is. Having tried to perform myself, I feel that the vast majority of musicians can't physically take the risk of turning their souls inside out on stage. Only the absolute masters with total artistic integrity can manage it and live to tell the tale.

Andrew Clements gives him a five-star review in The Guardian today.