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A touch of Polish

Posted March 27, 2024

BBC Music Magazine


When Krystian Zimerman celebrates the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein by performing his Second Symphony, he will be fulfilling a promise he made to the composer himself, as Jessica Duchen discovers.

Originally printed in the December 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

About ten years ago, pianist Krystian Zimerman gave a pre-concert talk before his recital at London's Royal Festival Hall – and his sense of comic timing had the audience rolling in the aisles. Unexpected, perhaps, from someone whom many music-lovers consider either an outspoken maverick or a rare bird of musical paradise. But for 2017–18 the witty, daredevil side of this legendary Polish pianist may well be uppermost. He turned 60 last December – 'I don't accept this. Maybe the world is turning at the wrong speed after the Japan earthquake!' he quips – but his chief preoccupation is not his own birthday, but Leonard Bernstein's 100th.

Zimerman is touring as soloist in Bernstein's exuberant Symphony No. 2, 'The Age of Anxiety', mostly with conductor Sir Simon Rattle – including with the London Symphony Orchestra in December –
in tribute to the late composer and conductor who exerted tremendous influence over his own development. 'Lenny gave me the courage to be myself,' he recalls.

Zimerman first met Bernstein as a young competition winner, fresh from the small town of Zabrze in southern Poland. His victory at the 1975 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, aged 18, had catapulted him into the international limelight. Visiting Vienna, he heard Bernstein conduct Mahler's Sixth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, and was 'completely wiped out' by it. Afterwards, he auditioned for the conductor, who engaged him as one of four pianists to record Stravinsky's Les Noces.

He toured plentifully with Bernstein thereafter, also recording the two Brahms concertos and the last three Beethovens with him. 'There was no other musician quite like him,' says Zimerman. 'He functioned as if he was in a different universe. Pieces you thought you knew would suddenly take on a different life when he touched them.'

Touring the Brahms Second Concerto, 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. "How come I didn't know?", he said. "You never asked!", I replied.'

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 possible 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: 'Maximim adrenalin!'

Returning to the symphony this year fulfils a promise he made to Bernstein. 'He asked me: "Will you play this piece with me win I'm 100?". And that 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.'

Another old friend is on the podium: 'I first met Simon Rattle when he was still a student and he came to my recital in the Royal Festival Hall,' Zimerman says. 'I remember him from the 1970s as a sparkling personality – he's the music himself. That's one of the talents that brings Rattle closer to Bernstein for me: you never thought of him conducting a piece – you thought it's his piece. He's composing the moment he's on stage with it.

'Another similarity is that he rehearses, preparing the orchestra, but what happens in the concert is not necessarily the same. We'll set up a framework, but he knows I can switch at any moment and I know he can follow, and vice-versa. When I make a joke on stage, he doesn't let me get away with it – I will get it back in the next two minutes! I like his sarcasm, his humour and his ability to jump into any project, no matter how crazy, the minute he is convinced of it.'

Zimerman has been in the news this autumn for a different project: his first solo recording for nearly a quarter of a century, namely the two last Schubert piano sonatas, D959 and D960. Its genesis is a tale in its own right. In 2007, a terrible earthquake hit Kashiwazaki in Japan – the site of a nuclear plant – and Zimerman gave a benefit concerto for the town's reconstruction. In gratitude, the mayor, Hiroshi Aida, offered him a week's use of the newly built Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre for a recording; in 2015 Zimerman finally took him up on it. 'We arrived in three metres of snow,' he recalls. 'My wife said, "You should record [Schubert's] Winterreise!".'

The hall's acoustic is by a student of Yasuhisa Toyota; Zimerman regards the latter as the world's finest acoustician, responsible for the Paris Philharmonie, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and venues all over Japan; Zimerman helped to persuade him to design the new hall for the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, NOSPR, in Katowice, where Zimerman had studied. London, he adds, could do worse than secure Toyota's services for its hoped-for Centre for Music.

It's the combination of warmth, bloom, and clarity that makes those halls so special, he says. 'Suntory Hall was the first proof – you hear every note, yet every note is in a cushion of warm surrounding and while playing you feel you are flying. The piano just opens and you can do incredible things there because you get so inspired by this acoustic.'

He has done incredible things with the Schubert sonatas. Part of his aim, he says, is to strip away false 'traditions' to get closer to the composer's intentions – though that is just the beginning. 'I was looking into Viennese tradition, especially of [pianist] Paul Badura-Skoda. But actually, English pianists, especially Clifford Curzon, were also inspiring to me in Schubert. You have to go after your intuition and play that which you feel in your soul.

'Of course, read as much as you can and understand the style, but mostly from studying scores of other pieces, not from recordings. As Arthur Rubinstein said, if you repeat mistakes for long enough, they become tradition. For me, tradition comes when I listen to Schubert's song cycles, then try to translate it into piano music, trying to make the piano sing.'

These raw, intimate works wring out their listeners emotionally in a way that only Schubert can. 'In Schubert's time, this was the climax of what emotion could be in music,' Zimerman reflects. 'That's what music is for: in the end we're not listening to sounds, we're listening to that which the sounds create. For myself, I'm not replaying a score – I'm replaying the reason why this composer wrote this score, trying to understand the emotions he wanted to create and then trying to translate it into modern times.'

But why no solo recordings for so long? 'I don't have the illusion that I'm producing something valuable, and if it's not valuable then there's no sense to put it on the market,' he says. 'I wasn't always happy with some of my other recordings and I thought it's not necessary to litter the market with yet another mediocre one.' (That thudding noise you can hear is multiple pianophiles' foreheads hitting their desks).

'I consider audio recordings as a historical mistake,' he explains. 'Music was never and "audio" experience. In the 19th century, you could always see the performer, so you always had an interaction with the performer's way of being touched by this music – therefore, his musical credibility. You have to be the first victim of the music you play, because if you're not, you won't be able to sell it credibly to the people.'

At home in Switzerland, where he and his wife Maja have lived since 1981, Zimerman never stops working with his explorations, musical or beyond. He's one of few concert pianists to be concerned with the instrument's mechanics. As a teenager, to earn money he learned to repair pianos and make the parts himself; he says they were simply unavailable in Zabrze in 1970s. The inclination is still there. 'It's not something for everyone,' he says. 'It requires so much studying and you have to like it. Besides, people laugh at a pianist who's running around at 4am with a jig-saw – they think he should sit at the window and be inspired by the moon.'

As for his reputation for being politically outspoken, I ask if he would offer a few words on artists and politics today. 'No, but I can say something about human beings and politics, because artists are not some other kind of being. We all have responsibilities as human beings, as citizens. As people who are voting, we should also be people who revolt when it goes wrong, or the moment we are cheated with promises... It's difficult, when analysing politics in Europe in the 1930s, to say: at what time was it not too late to stop it? Because then came a moment when it was too late, and when you said something, you paid with your life. When is the moment to say: "Now is the time to get angry"? By that I don't mean be a rebel and smash windows. Democracy allows us many tools which are civilised. We just don't use them – because of comfort, laziness, or naively thinking it will somehow end well.'

His view on the future of classical music is also food for though. 'I'm worried, very worried,' he admits. 'But I'm not concentrating on whether I'm optimistic or not, but on whether I did enough to secure its existence. I want to look in the mirror when I'm 70, if I'm still around, and say I did all I could in this life to honestly be called a representative of this profession. I have to have the courage to do my part.'

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