Zimerman brings Bacewicz and Szymanowski to Meany Hall

04.23.09
Krystian Zimerman
The Gathering Note

The last time Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman was in Seattle, he played for an encore the last movement of the Sonata No.2 by his compatriot Grazyna Bacewicz. The performance was memorable, so much so that at Meany Theater last night, he changed the program by request of those who heard him before, to include the whole sonata.

It was the highlight of the evening, the last concert of the year on the UW President's Piano Series. Bacewicz would have been 100 this year and wrote under the constraints of communism, but like Shostakovich, she wrote on many levels and in her music one can hear many of the same themes of war, anxiety, anger, sorrow and caution, but also peace.

Zimerman seemed totally at one with music and composer, and these emotions came through in his interpretation of this taut, powerful work. The soft processional sadness followed by growing power in the second movement culminating perhaps in defiance, is surely in the Shostakovich mode. The last movement is skittery with excitement and playful, a big piece for an encore.

He began the evening with Bach's Partita No. 2 in C Minor in a masterly performance. It's part of the genius of Bach that his music works no matter what instrument it's played on or what style it's played in-steel band, scat singing, romantic, you name it.

Zimerman's Bach is modern, but he married that outlook with a clear bow to Bach's times. His Bach was convincing: articulated, steady, sometimes with a subtle rubato, the architecture clear.

It was said of the photographer Ansel Adams that he had far more shades of black and white at his disposal than anyone else, and one could say of Zimerman that he can achieve more gradations of expression than most. At one time I heard a muted, misty quality I couldn't believe came out of a piano. Gentleness was often present, different somehow from tenderness, yet at other times he played with with unexpectedly showy brilliance.

Unexpected, because fast and furious for its own sake is more for the young and untried pianist, yet in Beethoven's final sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, this is what Zimerman appeared to do in the first movement. It seemed as though he played it at a tempo too speedy for his fingers, so that fast sections tended to sound scrambled, losing shape and phrasing, becoming shallow.

It was a relief to turn to the second movement, much of which was sublime in its delicacy, strength and depth.

The pianist usually performs at least one Polish composer, and while the Bacewicz replaced Brahms, Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Theme was already on the program.

It's not a great work, but Zimerman is a consummate interpreter of his countrymen and made each variation compelling in its own right. The "marcia funebre" stood apart from the rest for its hushed portentous mood, arrestingly different.

Zimerman travels with his own Steinway, and says it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. It may be a very long time before we hear him again in this country.