Showing posts with label Krystian Zimerman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Krystian Zimerman. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Southbank: a love letter

A view from the terrace of the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe,
which ought to be our pride and joy

Dear Southbank Centre,

You are my home-from-home. You have been for 40 years, possibly more. With yesterday's news that you may have to stay closed until April 2021 at least (which I must admit isn't wholly unexpected), there comes a sense of dismay and anxiety that's almost vertiginous even without being compounded by the same fears for the future of Shakespeare's Globe, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the West End, and indeed every other theatre and concert hall in the land. Nobody has yet solved the conundrum of infectious disease versus mass audience versus economics of putting on a show. Trouble is inevitable. That doesn't mean we should just roll over and accept it.

Britain without its arts would be...well, not a lot. We've always been defined by our theatre, our playwrights, our authors, our actors; in recent decades also, at long, long last, by our musicians. Some of the finest in the world are British - not that we always appreciate them enough - and their numbers are swelled by those who have decided to make London their home, in many cases exactly because of its flourishing arts scene. Kill that off and you destroy first of all billions in our economy - guess why tourists come here? It ain't for skiing; secondly, the present and future of dozens of thousands of people whose livelihoods exist in this huge industry (which is worth a lot more in economic terms to the country than fishing); the dreams of generations of young people who find fulfilment, creativity and hope in the arts as nowhere else; and, essentially, anything that still remains of our souls.

Opera North's Ring Cycle, relayed into the foyer from the RFH
Dear Southbank, I remember the first time I was brought to experience you, in particular the Royal Festival Hall. It was a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Freed the violin soloist. My father coached me on the music for a week beforehand, playing me recordings and telling me about the composers: Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the Dvorak New World Symphony. I remember staring at the flautist in fascination and feeling sorry for her, because she was sitting right in front of some awfully loud brass. Not long afterwards I was in again for my first piano recital - Tamás Vásáry playing the Chopin Waltzes - and a taste of chamber music, in the form of the Amadeus Quartet and William Pleeth in the Schubert Quintet.

That was also the first time I went backstage, and I have no idea how or why we did that, but I do remember circling the RFH's Green Room looking for the quartet members to sign my programme, and William Pleeth looking down from what seemed a very great height with the most benevolent smile in the world. Often I'm in that room twice a week now.

When I was a teenager, the penny dropped in earnest. Or rather, Ernest: the Ernest Reid Children's Concerts. I was first to arrive for our music O level class one day and found myself unexpectedly conscripted: "There's one place free in the choir to sing at the Royal Festival Hall and it goes to the first person to arrive today, which is you...". Actually I can't sing to save my life - but gosh, did I sing then, and wow, did I love it. We performed specially arranged versions of the Fauré Requiem (that was where I got my passion for Fauré, too), the Haydn "Creation" with Sir David Willcocks, Handel's "Messiah", Vivaldi's Gloria and some wonderfully offbeat Christmas carols. There were lightbulbs around the mirrors in the dressing rooms, we were seated on benches beside the mighty organ, and we felt so grown-up. We'd take the tube to Embankment and walk over Hungerford Bridge in the rain and there you were, the RFH, on the far side, sitting proud like a green prize cat with curved back, waiting for us to stroke you.

Then Horowitz came to give his last London recital and I queued up for ages and didn't get in. Howls. But in those teen years I went to other piano recitals that shaped my piano passions for decades. Sviatoslav Richter. Krystian Zimerman (aged 23). András Schiff (aged 28). Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, Annie Fischer, Imogen Cooper, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Shura Cherkassky, Murray Perahia, Alicia de Larrocha, Emil Gilels, André Tchaikovsky, Mitsuko Uchida, Daniel Barenboim and more - none of them ever forgotten, each of them treasured like a priceless family heirloom that lives on in the heart and the inner ear.

Vladimir Jurowski rehearsing with the LPO
I met some of my dearest friends in your foyers. I remember my first glimpse of some of them. My first love, rounding a pillar in the RFH together with the mutual friend who introduced us. My wonderful colleague and opera-writing partner Roxanna Panufnik in the doorway of the Purcell Room with the mutual friend who introduced us (who was Tasmin Little). The party in the Chelsfield Room after a London International Piano Competition final where my former piano teacher taunted me "go and mingle, you've got the best chat-up line in the room!" and I met several people who are still dear friends now. And on the stage, a violinist I watched for years in his orchestra, thinking "he looks nice" before we ever met, let alone got married. The first time I did meet Tom I didn't recognise him at first. It was only after two weeks that he invited me to one of his concerts and I thought "oh, it's him?". Because I'd only ever seen him in profile, playing in the first violin section of the LPO.

I well remember the controversies and infighting of the early nineties, rumbling forth during my days as assistant editor on various music magazines. The time the Tory government decided to try to kill off one of the orchestras and mercifully failed (this incident ended up nicknamed the 'Hoffnung Report' after the musical satirist). The time the poor old RPO was hideously penalised for daring to have made a commercial recording called Hooked On Classics and had its grant sliced to little bits. The time the LPO had to appoint a principal conductor too fast and ended up with someone who seemed frankly worse than most.

Federico Colli and JD with the Critics' Circle Award 2019
I've stood or sat on your stages myself, and not only as a singing kid. I found myself doing things beyond my wildest dreams. The pre-concert talk to introduce the UK premiere of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane, the opera I never imagined I would be lucky enough to hear live. A pre-concert interview with Krystian Zimerman, who unexpectedly transformed himself into the sharpest comedian in town; I became the fall guy, asking the straight questions to which his answers and the way he timed them had people rolling in the aisles. Then last year I had to make a little speech at a Philharmonia concert, presenting pianist Federico Colli with the Critics' Circle Emerging Artist Award (see pic above). Here is where great musicians begin to reach their audiences and can bring them insight, inspiration and wonderful memories...

It's not all a rose garden out there, of course. For the last several years, it's struck me that visiting you is a little bit like being St George and battling the dragon for entry to the castle, because between platform 19 at Waterloo and your side entrance there are about 10 different ways one can be killed, but it is worth it every time. You can be run down in the station by the crowds going the other way, you can fall down the front stairs in that crowd, you can be run over by lorries or motorbikes zooming round the roundabout, or by taxis and bicycles on Belvedere Road or skateboarders crashing into you pretty much anywhere. Then you have to get past the food market which is so tempting that in five minutes it can empty your wallet and burst your buttons. Once one is lucky enough to reach the foyer, the Long Bar can be a welcome sight. During the daytime, since the austerity governments started cutting stuff, the open-to-all free-wifi foyer life has become a haven not only for the London creatives and freelancers who give the atmosphere such a buzz, but also for the dispossessed, the homeless and young families who have nowhere else to go and play. Some people object to this, but perhaps those individuals should stop voting in the governments that have produced the situation.

None of this is helped by those contrarian pundits who this week said a) theatre's dying, "*whispers* good" (an actual tweet by a right-wing rag's arts editor, who probably adored the massive outrage he caused), and b) kill off the Southbank and put it out to "private tender" (hello? this is the biggest arts centre in the biggest city in Europe, with a mission to serve its public, so what are you even talking about?). Can you imagine a sports editor saying "it's about time we killed off football"? It's a shoddy, miserable, wanton look to kick something or someone when they're down; and at a time when an unelected aid gets to address the nation from the Downing Street rose garden to say why it is apparently OK for him to undermine the health rules, it also shows that arrogant squandering of hard-won advantage has become a way of life here. That's almost as dangerous and destructive as the virus itself. But remember: every dog has its day. There is a thirteenth circle of hell ready and waiting to hand out its keys.

Really we should all be pulling together at the moment. We have to save the arts, because they will be saved: as a dear friend reminded me last night, from the slough of despond, theatre has been with us since ancient Greece and isn't going away any time soon. The same is true of music. We can and will make music at home. Sales of digital pianos are apparently soaring. Instruments are coming out of cases after lying untouched for years while the rat-race claimed us. Tideovers are possible online: tonight I am hosting a discussion about Beethoven for Garsington Opera and the Royal Philharmonic Society which was going to be in a theatre but has now been reconstituted via Zoom and can hence be watched by our friends all over the world. There will be a way - even if everything looks hopeless right now.

But mess with the Southbank and you mess with much more than brutalist architecture. You mess with people's entire lives, their inner landscapes, their souls. Take all those favourite memories, as above, and multiply them by millions. For every music-lover who lives here or visits here will have a store of them just as large, and there are millions, all about listening to the world's greatest musicians in these spaces and keeping their performances alive in their hearts ever afterwards, just as I do.

Take that away and those musicians, those audiences and that inspiration won't return. Squander our advantage, won after many, many decades of hard work and devotion, and it's gone for good. So let us keep our concert halls and theatres. And let us bloody well find ways to make them work again.

Much love,

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lenny's Credo

It is Leonard Bernstein's centenary today. Above, the conclusion of his lecture series in 1973, in which as his 'credo' he predicts a new and wonderful musical era of eclecticism rooted in tonality. 45 years on, it seems he was right (though heaven knows we have other problems to contend with now that he probably couldn't foresee). Many of his lectures can be viewed online and I urge you to look them up: he was a musical communicator without compare.

The unanswered question? "I no longer know what the question was," he says, "but I do know the answer. And the answer is: yes."

And here's some music.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"Will you play this with me when I'm 100?"

Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No.2, 'The Age of Anxiety', isn't so much a symphony as a piano concerto-stroke-tone-poem. Based on WH Auden's poem of the same title, exploring the overnight musings of a group of strangers in a New York bar, it includes a set of vivid variations, a jazzy movement 'The Masque' in which piano and percussion interact with intricate bedazzlement and a final, glorious sunrise in which you can almost see the dawn light glinting off the Empire State Building.

The real puzzle is why this piece is done so infrequently. Glad to say that that is changing tonight, as Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle present it in an all-Bernstein concert with the LSO, alongside Wonderful Town.

In case you missed my interview with Zimerman in the December edition of BBC Music Magazine, here's a taster of what he said about this piece and why he's playing it.

....Touring the Brahms Second Concerto [with Leonard Bernstein], Zimerman recalls: “We were having lunch one day and he asked me about his own music. When I told him I had played his Symphony No.2, he was amazed and said, ‘How come I didn’t know?’. I said, ‘You never asked!’” 
 Naturally, numerous performances followed: “Each time was completely different. That was a special feature of his music making: he was always totally honest, so the smallest thing that changed his emotional construction immediately found its way into his interpretations. So there was not really a Bernstein interpretation – it was done ad hoc in the performance, to the extent that it was impossible to rehearse! He could make dramatic changes on stage. That’s something I have never experienced with any other conductor, this degree of courage and daring.” Scary, perhaps? Zimerman smiles: “Maximum adrenaline!”
 Returning to the symphony this year fulfills a promise he made to Bernstein: “He asked me: ‘Will you play this piece with me when I’m 100?’. And that’s why I’m playing it now, because I realised two years ago that he’d be 100. It’s a great piece. It’s so much fun. And it’s so much like him, with all the freshness and flexibility and craziness of his character.”

Last time Zimerman played this piece in London, with Bernstein himself, it was 1986 (see video above). But now an Age of Anxiety is upon us in earnest - whether it's 52, 2017, or anything else of the totally unreasonable and largely unhinged world of today. I'd love to see what Auden and Bernstein would make of things now. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Out now: Zimerman's first solo album since 1994

It's out. And it was worth the wait. Pianophiles have hung on for a new album from Krystian Zimerman since 1994, when his Debussy Preludes won a Gramophone award. Concertos, yes; a rather wonderful piano sonata by Grazyna Bacewicz along with her piano quintets, yes; but all alone, no. Finally here it is: Schubert's A major Sonata D959 and B flat major Sonata D960.

These are unlike any other interpretations of these works that I've heard: he makes them entirely his own, and they scrub up like buried treasure after a bath. Yet with such eloquent phrasing, you feel Schubert himself is speaking to you directly, with something urgent, profound and life-affirming to communicate. If you only listen to one thing this week, make sure it's this. Incidentally, if you're a vinyl nut, this album will soon be available on LP as well.

Here's one Spotify extract...this is the Andante from the B flat major Sonata.

Back in May, into my in-box popped a message from DG: could I go and see Krystian, interview him and write the booklet notes? ("Er, let me have a think and get back to you..." said I, or not exactly...). Here are two little tasters of the resulting text, in which he talks about his view of the sonatas and the genesis of this project. Lots more inside the CD booklet. 

JD: How would you characterise these sonatas?

KrZ: I think they contribute significantly to our view of Schubert’s greatness. He switches into a different gear, daring radically new ideas in harmony and polyphony. Compared to his earlier sonatas, they could almost be by another composer.

The slow movements of the D959 and D960 sonatas are maybe the saddest music I know: the major keys are even sadder than the minor, because this is complete resignation, complete acceptance, perhaps thinking of leaving this planet and ending life. The middle of the A major’s slow movement is revolutionary. It’s a milestone in music: a tremendous tempest where all hell breaks loose. You feel it almost foreshadows Wagner, because it looks incredibly into the future. Yet both sonatas have scherzos that are full of humour, and gorgeous last movements in which Schubert integrates so beautifully the singing character of the cantilena.

I find the repeats absolutely necessary. In D960 the low trill in the left hand occurs fortissimo only at the end of the exposition, in the first-time bars, and it’s completely different from the other three times we hear it. But also, when you return to the beginning it sounds transformed after you’ve heard the whole exposition. The movement is long, but I have tried to choose a tempo that is always fluid, with plenty of breathing.

JD: The recording venue was the Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre, Japan. Kashiwazaki is the location of a gigantic nuclear power station. After a terrible earthquake there in 2007, you gave a fundraising recital for the town – and to thank you they later offered you a week’s use of this hall?

KrZ: Yes, I am extremely grateful to the town of Kashiwazaki and its mayor, Mr Hiroshi Aida. The hall was built after the original Performing Arts Centre was destroyed in the earthquake, and is designed by a student of the great acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. I thought it was among the best acoustics I had encountered and I thought I would love to record there. In Toyota’s halls, every note is clear, yet each is in a cushion of warm surroundings. For example, playing in Suntory Hall feels like flying – the piano opens up and you can do incredible things because you are so inspired by this acoustic.

...We arrived to record the Schubert… in three metres of snow. The staff were unbelievably generous, providing heating, food and four people to run everything smoothly, even when we worked until 2am. I am also very grateful to my excellent sound engineer, Rainer Maillard, who agreed to continue working that late. We recorded everything using 32-bit technology, perhaps for the first time on Deutsche Grammophon.

The snow was so deep that one night we had to shovel our way out. But inside, it was another world and I was able to spend five days completely immersed in Schubert.

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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.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Breaking: Zimerman to play last-minute London recital

Krystian Zimerman. Photo: Kassakra/Deutsche Grammophon

Just in: Mitsuko Uchida has sadly had to cancel her Royal Festival Hall recital tomorrow. They have found a replacement. His name is Krystian Zimerman. He will play Szymanowski Mazurkas Op.50 Nos 13, 14, 15 and 16 and Schubert's two final piano sonatas, D959 in A major and D960 in B flat.

Zimerman has not given a London recital for something like six years, so this is all rather amazing.

Call the box office PDQ on 0207 960 4200. 

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Happy Birthday, Krystian Zimerman!

The great Polish pianist is 59 today. Still one of the greatest of them all.

If he will forgive me for posting this, here he is with a rather special take on the 'Moonlight' Sonata that's a bit appropriate. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Honeymoon music-making, and a story about Brahms

Rattle (left), Zimerman (centre) and the LSO: a night to remember. Photo: Amy T. Zielinksi

The honeymoon is underway over at the Barbican: Sir Simon Rattle is here for his first concerts with the LSO since The Announcement a few months back. On Thursday night he kicked off this stint with his orchestra-to-be, offering a high-octane programme of Brahms and Dvorak.

The LSO, let's face it, needs him. We need him, too. He offers a taste of the genuine passion that should be at the heart of musical experience, yet all too often isn't as others let its precedence falter under the competing weight, variously, of intellect (necessary, but in balance), power (less necessary), greed (not at all) and ego-building pretension (aagh...). Rattle is, for music, pioneer, evangelist and born leader; and while raising such high expectations for his forthcoming tenure at the LSO is obviously dangerous, it's hard not to notice that everyone is hoping he'll be the best thing that's happened to us in a good while.

The fact that he was able to bring Krystian Zimerman with him to play the Brahms D minor Concerto says much about his persuasive nature, since this titan of a pianist is, sadly, now among several greats who no longer willingly subject themselves on a regular basis to the many and varied iniquities of London.

Rattle in action. Photo: Creative Commons
Rattle conducts like a man in love with music and with life; and the orchestra responded to him like a purring cat experiencing sunshine and tuna fish. One almost expected it to roll on its collective back and let him stroke its tummy. The sheer sensual gorgeousness of sound he draws from them is light years away from Gergiev's heavy-duty ferocity; no less visceral, but with different intent, different texture - speaking to the heart as much as to the gut.

A second half of Dvorak tone-poems and a joyous, high-stepping Slavonic dance as encore was a surprising but refreshing choice of repertoire - something else we need from the LSO and Rattle is a healthy injection of unusual pieces - and when delivered with such narrative charm and all-giving warmth (y'know, Mrs Rattle is Czech), it convinces, lingering in the mind. And Zimerman's Brahms found conductor and soloist in more than exceptional accord.

When I interviewed Zimerman for the first time back in c1990, I quizzed him about that special intensity that seems to drive his playing. He commented that he likes to play on the very edge of what's possible. Sometimes it seems he goes beyond it. This Brahms was one such occasion - and how excellent to hear, once more, that white-hot quality that so compelled in the young pianist, and that remains intact and alight in his late fifties.

Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 is the creation of a very young composer; the first sketches date from 1854, when he was all of 21 and was considering writing a symphony, soon after Schumann's attempted suicide and incarceration in the Endenich mental hospital. Several permutations later, the drafts evolved into the D minor Concerto. Brahms once wrote to Clara Schumann that the Adagio was a "gentle portrait" of her - and the theme apparently sets the unheard words "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine", from the Requiem mass, in tribute to Schumann, who by then had died.

So far, so beautiful - but what about that last movement? Some approach it as an austere, Bachian-Beethovenian counterpoint exercise. Zimerman brought us a Hungarian dance. When have we ever heard it sound quite so alive and aflame?

It makes sense, too. Think about it. Variation 14 of the Brahms 'Handel Variations' is extremely similar to this movement's main theme in certain ways: a lively, staccato, syncopated number with strongly marked rhythms, trills flying around and a running semiquaver bassline; and it follows from the sultry variation 13, verbunkos style. The two variations make up a lassù and friss. You can almost feel Joseph Joachim, Brahms's close friend and Hungarian violinist par excellence, peering over his shoulder and picking up the tribute with a brusque nod of thanks. Perhaps it's not only youthfully exuberant; perhaps, complete with that pernickety fugue episode, it's a portrait of Joachim to complement the portrait of Clara? It would not have been the first such piece Brahms created, and it certainly wasn't the last.

Who does that leave for movement no.1? It's been said before that the opening plunges, with Schumann, into the Rhine. This music feels like a soul in existential crisis. As Zimerman and Rattle bounced ideas off each other, plumbing the extremities of the score, the anguish and struggle behind Brahms's conception shone out as vividly as if they'd poured descaler over its furred-up contours and brought it to life new-minted. Zimerman's moments of pianissimo playing at times seemed almost to shock the orchestra into matching him. The balance never faltered; Rattle's support let him fly up to the sun on wings that can take the heat.

Is this a sign of things we can look forward to when Rattle arrives in earnest? Bring it on.

Next summer Zimerman is scheduled to come back with him, too, this time for a spot of Beethoven.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Birthday wishes for...

Krystian Zimerman, 58 today. Here he is in a beautiful, fresh, witty and pure-toned performance of the Mozart Sonata in C, K330. Gloriously expressive eyebrows, a tone to die for, and much more. Don't miss the ending.

Fans alert: he will be IN LONDON on 2 July to perform Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 with the LSO and Simon Rattle at the Barbican. Don't miss it.

Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin*

(*"All the best on your birthday" - Polish)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Masterclass with a legend

Professor Andrzej Jasinski visits the Chopin Society. Photos by Marek Ostas

The other night I was fortunate enough to be drafted in by the Chopin Society as interviewer for a very special evening at Steinway's with Professor Andrzej Jasinski from Katowice, the former teacher of Krystian Zimerman and president of the jury at the Chopin Competition these past several sessions. First he played us some vivid Mozart and Chopin; then we discussed all manner of things; after that, he taught two gifted students including Mishka Rushdie Momen (top left), who has appeared on the Andrew Marr Show (amongst other accolades) and is in the final of the Dudley International Piano Competition next week.

Prof Jasinski's energy, charm and insights seemed boundless. I found myself marvelling at the mystery and complexity of the process by which music must travel from the composer via the brain and into the hands. Controlling the articulation, the professor demonstrated, is vital in order to inject a communicative, speaking sound into every turn of phrase, indeed every note.

We covered numerous topics in the interview. Prof Jasinski reminisced about a day sometime in the mid 1960s when he was assistant in Katowice to a great professor who had met Brahms...and called Jasinski asking him to teach a small boy from nearby Zabrze who needed a younger teacher. The lad's name was, of course, Krystian Zimerman. It was several years later that Jasinksi realised exactly how special his charge was: aged about 13, Krystian was asked to play Rhapsody in Blue with an orchestra, learned it in three weeks and did a great job. But to nurture such a talent, Jasinski added, you must go slowly, step by step; and he lauded his star pupil's parents for not pushing him into the limelight too early.

It's also not every day you get to ask an expert of this magnitude what the key might be to playing Chopin's mazurkas - and find a response that is so practical, solid and detailed. First of all, he promises that you don't actually have to be Polish to get the hang of them, pointing out the excellent playing of Fou Ts'ong. Next, look at the score! The indications show you where to sustain a note, where it is staccato and where an enhanced mark tells you it's more than a staccato: a jump. But a jump only in the melodic line, not the left hand as well.

The professor finished our discussion by demonstrating Chopin's closeness to Mozart. Arthur Rubinstein, he remarked, used to say that you should play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin. He took lines of Chopin and added Mozartian accompaniments, for example turning the Fantasie-Impromptu into Rondo alls Turca as if by magic. In the masterclasses that followed, Mishka played the Polonaise-Fantasie, which to Jasinski is full of Chopin's feelings for his native Poland: conflict, fear, happy memories, the pounding of horses' hooves in battle and ultimately optimism for the future.

At discussions afterwards, I was just reflecting upon the way that a life in music can keep someone so young and energetic (the professor is 78, but followed an intense schedule of masterclasses in the various London conservatoires through his visit this week), when I met someone from the audience who was still teaching piano aged 91 - she was a former pupil of Gina Bachauer. This on top of having just received an advance copy of a CD that captures Menahem Pressler's 90th birthday concert with the Quatuor Ebène in Paris (Dvorak Quintet, Schubert 'Trout', etc) that overflows with joy in music-making.

Philip Glass may advocate yoga and vegetarianism as a secret to long life and good health, and I'm sure those help. But if you want to stay young: be a musician.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Happy Birthday to the Ballades champion

If you heard my BBC Radio 3 Building a Library on the Chopin 4 Ballades the other day, you'll know that we ended up with three top choices: Krystian Zimerman (recorded c1988), Alfred Cortot (1929) and Sviatoslav Richter (1960). It's Krystian Zimerman's birthday today, as luck would have it, so here he is in the surprise wild card of the four: the heart-warming poem that is the A flat Ballade No.3.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KRYSTIAN, wherever you may be!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Oops. Happy birthday to us.

Ah. So 2 March was JDCMB's 9th birthday. Oops. Thought it was today. I've never been much good at remembering birthdays. Luckily, it seems we celebrated in the best possible way - at that Parsifal cinecast - had I but thought to check.

Since I didn't, here is Krystian Zimerman playing the music of someone whose birthday was the day before, unless it was in fact a week earlier. (Well, any excuse would do.)

In the meantime, it is becoming apparent that this time next year, this blog will have been going for a decade. I'm looking for a good way to combine high quality chocolate, amazing singers, great pianists, slidey strings, inspirational composers, words&music, fine wine and no gluten. What do you think we should do to mark the occasion? Please feel free to write in with any suggestions!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Friday not-really-historical: Zimerman in 1975

While we're indulging in a spot of Zimerphilia, here's where it all began: in Poland in 1975, the year he won the Chopin Competition. Here he is, aged 18, playing the second movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Krakow University Orchestra.

Lutoslawski lives

The other night Krystian Zimerman lifted the score of Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto off the RFH Steinway and kissed it. But by then it was the London public that was really taking the piece to their hearts. It couldn't have had better advocates. Zimerman's playing offered all its characteristic meld of white-hot power and molten-gold touch - the sound for which this work was originally conceived - and Salonen, himself a composer, naturally sculpts a work's structure into clear lines, allowing it to stand out in vivid 3D.

The concerto, though, seems to operate in more than three dimensions. It's in four sections, played without a break and, throughout, Lutoslawski's control of timbre, his imagination for the most minute touches of colour - flecks between woodwind and percussion echoed high on the piano, or the terse, secretive, scurrying chaconne idea on the double basses that opens the last section - provides a unique "finish" on top of his strong architecture and the considerable flair he demands in the solo part.

Some of the magnificent piano writing resembles a giant fantasy on Scriabin or Liszt; at other times it puts one in mind of Bartok's 'Night Music', echoes of strange creatures from invisible corners. Above all, its vision has integrity, its form offers an entirely personal twist on the tradition and its voice - whooshing the concerto concept into the late 20th century, hands first - should assure it a place in the standard repertoire from now on. It's not easy listening - whoever said listening should be easy in any case? - but the better you know it, the better if gets.

As for Lutoslawski's comment that the piece is "very playable" because, as a pianist himself, he wrote it to be so...that might seem amusing to anyone peering over at the antheap of notes assigned to the soloist. But I'm reliably assured (by Zimerman) that the bits that sound difficult are not in fact the hardest to play. He is, incidentally, in marvellous form.(And no, he didn't bring his own piano this time - apparently this concerto, written to be played on a modern concert grand, doesn't need anything more.)

Where next for the contemporary piano concerto? Ligeti's is a favourite of mine - if I'd been a real pianist it would have been top of my liszt. What a pity it is that, as we hear on the grapevine, certain efforts to persuade him to write another, bigger one didn't come to fruition. James MacMillan's concerti and the two by Lowell Liebermann have both fared well, not least thanks to the ballet world - the Royal Ballet whiz-kid Liam Scarlett has now choreographed both of the latter's. But what the rapturous reception for the Lutoslawski seems to prove is that the form is far from exhausted, the notion of it anything but dead, and there's an excitement out there that's ready to celebrate exploration and adventure within a familiar genre.

The mixture of The Rest is Noise, The Minotaur, Lutoslawski's centenary and adventurous individuals advocating the new, strong and creative - notably Kasper Holten at Covent Garden - already seems to be transforming public appetite for recent music and fresh masterpieces to succeed it. I'm sure I wasn't the only one to experience an epiphany over Boulez at the Proms last summer, thanks to Barenboim. New and recent music needs great performances to win new and thriving audiences. On Wednesday night, Lutoslawski got one. Here's to many, many more.