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Jessica Duchen
Tuesday 23rd February 2010
Take it to the Limit

Full house and a standing ovation were waiting for Krystian Zimerman at the Royal Festival Hall for the first of Chopin's two big birthday concerts yesterday. Half of Poland seemed to be there, never mind half of London, while dignitaries, diplomats and the titled abounded. I am concerned that my fingernail may, during a handshake, have caused momentary discomfort to the Duke of Kent. Some music fans were also in the hall. Nobody sang 'Happy Birthday Dear Chopin' and there wasn't any vodka.

And so to business. What is it about Krystian's playing that causes all the fuss?

It would be easier to say "what *isn't* it", but here are a few thoughts. First of all, he goes further. Where other pianists merely dream, shrug and compromise, Krystian won't settle for the same. Anyone who has ever set a toe into the murky waters of professional piano performance will know that ghastly sinking feeling in the stomach as you meet your piano for the evening, which may variously resemble a stew, a typewriter or a three-legged monster predisposed to eat you. Every one of us (well, them...I gave up...) longs for a violinist's freedom to bring his own Strad and adjust the tuning & set-up. And that is exactly what Krystian does.

His piano is his best friend and goes everywhere with him; he spends possibly as much time preparing it as he does practising on it. Result: the piano has the greatest clarity of any concert instrument I've heard - for instance you can hear the definition of every flickering note in the whisk-figure at the start of the Second Scherzo. The dynamic range, too, is incredible - think quintuple ps and fs instead of merely double. He's realised every pianist's greatest wish.

Not that that would count for anything if he didn't have the musical imagination and ability to match. Going that far with the instrument enables him to go further with his interpretations, which of course is why he does the former in the first place. Some moments in the concert - the first movement of the B flat minor Sonata or the last of the B minor - progressed with such intensity that it was hard to breathe. If most pianists push matters to the extremes in terms of speed and emotional intensity combined, they come croppers, but not this one. 

He opened with a deceptively tranquil F sharp Nocturne, melodies exquisitely turned, inner textures lapping like the Thames outside, then unleashed the B flat minor Sonata: the first movement a feverish gallop, the last almost an optical illusion - again because every note was defined even through the carefully manipulated pedal wash. Pedalling, btw, is an underrated art. Try the way Zimerman uses the soft pedal at strong volume to create the aural equivalent of a gauze lowering as the Funeral March begins its last diminuendo into the grave. The B flat minor Scherzo was its ideal foil as a sort of pre-interval built-in encore. 

The B minor Sonata was a model of lyricism and power and demonstrated the extreme capabilities of both pianist and magic piano - the Largo a voyage through heavenly tranquility, the finale building to an overwhelming tenor oration with the theme's final return that wouldn't have disgraced a Greek tragedy. Zimerman's melodies do not only sing, but speak, because he has something to say...

Yet by now something odd was happening: our pianist started to cast some seriously filthy looks into the audience. Was it the coughing between movements? The drawback of the RFH's refurbishment is that every bark bites - and most of Krystian's recitals here in the past have taken place in May or June rather than in prime flu season. But no: some dimwit near the front had brought in a recording device, and Krystian could see it clear as daylight. You can imagine his views on such things. Later, we hear, the culprit was 'detained' by staff and the police were called.

Finally the Barcarolle entered another world, a valedictory poem that was all half-lights and sepia colourwash. And, faced with standing ovation and a bouquet almost bigger than he is, he treated us to a rare encore - the C sharp minor waltz; we missed hearing the first bar because everyone had to sit down again very quickly. (I wish he would allow his LP of the Waltzes to be rereleased on CD - it was one of his first recordings, made when he was about 21 and is the freshest, most charming account of them you could hope for - but I guess it's a case of 'pigs might fly'.)

And then, while the great and good drank and diplomaticised upstairs in a room with a view, the man and his piano set out again to drive through the night to Paris. As The Times interview revealed the other day, he is planning to take a well-earned sabbatical next year. I hope he'll be back soon. Few other artists exist to match him, if any.

For those who couldn't get in, here he is in the B flat minor Scherzo.

(By the way, Alexandre Tharaud's recital at the Wigmore on Wednesday has been cancelled due to illness.)

UPDATE: Intermezzo has some photos here.


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March 1st, 2010
10:03 PM
Actually I was one of the police who arrived at the incident. We couldn't do anything because it's not illegal to record a concert. It is only illegal if he/she makes copies and sell or rent it for self profit. UK law doesnt forbid you from recording/filming/taking pictures of anything as long as it doesn't go against the UK "copyright" law. We only have a "copyright" law in UK (and in most part of the world). What the person was doing was not an illegal act because he was recording for himself. It was just against the venue policy that recording is not allowed.

Jessica Duchen
March 1st, 2010
9:03 AM
Peter, you're so right about the RFH. The contrast in atmosphere between the surroundings for Zimerman's recital and the Chopin Society concert with Piers Lane the night before in the Actors' Church was very striking - the church won hands down. But it doesn't seat 2500... The only concert halls I can think of with real "atmosphere" are the Musikverein in Vienna and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Perhaps someone here could copy one of them next time they want to build a proper concert hall in London (maybe in our next lifetimes...). Just want to say, since you brought it up, that T's commentaries have nothing to do with me. He doesn't have a blog, so he writes on other people's. I don't need to.

February 28th, 2010
12:02 PM
I was there, thanks to a free ticket which came to me as a member of the Chopin Society. It wasn't a programme which I would normally have travelled from Salisbury to hear because all the works were so familiar - not even one of the less-often heard works by Chopin himself, like the Bolero or a Rondo. But I greatly admired his playing. You can't get more authentic than a Pole who won the Chopin Competition, after all. It was almost immaculate as far as mere notes went, and I certainly didn't notice the "rushing" which Michael Church mentioned in his Indy review. Mr Church usually writes about World Music and I think Edward Seckerson or Bayan Northcott might have given a more balanced view. My only other reservation was the size of the venue. I was in the 35th row, approximately, and the sound was a bit faint compared with the intimate venues where I usually hear piano recitals - the Wigmore Hall or the Castle in Husum, where the "rarities" have an audience of 160 maximum. When the ears have to be "turned up" to compensate for the lower volume, any coughing is all the more intrusive. But that, I suppose, is the problem when a performer becomes too famous. Long may Marc-Andre Hamelin remain someone who can sell out the Wigmore Hall months ahead and graduate no higher than the Queen Elizabeth, however much he merits a big date at the Proms etc. How about it BBC? I enjoyed the knock-about discussion in the comments on the Telegraph blog by Damian Thompson headed "What a weirdo" to which one "tomeisner" contributed several times, and I recommend it to your readers who want a bit of a laugh and something they can really disagree with.

Jessica Duchen
February 24th, 2010
4:02 PM
Yeah, I wonder if we were all at the same concert?! As I always say: "Chacun a son goo".

February 24th, 2010
1:02 PM
Interestingly, your colleague(?) at the Independent wrote that he found the whole experience "underwhelming". In fact, there have been surprisingly mixed reviews on the recital. Nevertheless, I'm completely with you - what a fine recital it was!

Jessica Duchen
February 23rd, 2010
1:02 PM
Good points, Ed! I've become aware at various concerts in the past week of just how distracting "bad behaviour" in the audience truly is - especially in view of the move over at the Roundhouse towards a "relaxed" atmosphere to pull in the youngsters. This needs a post to itself soon. Meanwhile, it was certainly a concert in which one didn't want to miss a single note.

February 23rd, 2010
12:02 PM
I was almost disappointed that he didn't subject the recording audience member to a bout of vicious finger jabbing as he has done before. I became aware of quite how transported I was by his Sonata only when I was torn away but clapping idiots after the first movement. When I woman behind me bellowed 'Bravo!' I had to suppress and near-reflex to turn around and smash her in the face. I just don't understand why these saboteurs come to hear music. Zimerman usually attracts people who know their music (at least more than, say, Lang Lang). That aside, what an evening!

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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