Zimerman's 'voice' flows ravishingly at Benaroya

04.27.06
Krystian Zimerman

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman is widely acknowledged as one of the finest pianists of his generation. His extraordinary recital Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall, concluding the Seattle Symphony's Distinguished Artists Recital Series this season, provided ample testimony to the reasons why.

Any musician with his reputation must possess a formidable technique. Zimerman does. He has power, sweep, control, speed, all of which were put to good use in works of Mozart, Ravel and Chopin. His legato is phenomenal. However, those fleet fingers of his are always in search of the music at hand, giving it luminous life.

Coupled with that depth of bravura is one of the most gorgeous sounds imaginable on the piano. People often talk about violinists, as they do singers, for their individual sound. Less so with pianists. With Zimerman, one is awash in an immaculate and full-bodied timbre that can make the supple adjustments to composers as different as Mozart and Ravel. This is a tone ravishing yet straightforward and noble. Added to that is an astonishing array of colors, of weights and balances.

Certainly, Zimerman has an advantage over most pianists. He travels with his own instrument -- a Steinway made in Hamburg, Germany, installed with his keyboard modifications. The evening began with Mozart's Sonata in C (K. 330). The work is a masterpiece, which is exactly how Zimerman approached it -- but not self-consciously. He conveyed freshness and a purity both elegant and simple. There was feeling, but never overdone, and vigor when needed. His ornaments, predictably, have taste. The pianist is an artist of great imagination, even to the point of taking the occasional chance.

Hearing Zimerman's reading of Ravel's "Valses nobles et sentimentales," one was reminded of Balanchine's haunting ballet, "La Valse," which is set to this music. These waltzes are not just so many bits of easy charm deftly woven together, but charm that often has a dark edge to it. Zimerman's voices were amazing in their individuality and range.

The rest of the evening was devoted to Chopin. His F Minor Ballade was the last-minute substitute for Gershwin's Three Preludes. I would like to have heard Zimerman and Gershwin, but Zimerman and Chopin are not second drawer. The playing was, again, rich in imagination, drama coupled with lyricism. The composer's more than 50 mazurkas are as harmonically daring as anything he wrote. At Benaroya, Zimerman played the four in the Opus 24. Could anyone have given them greater scale, more subtle phrasing, greater limpid brilliance, greater tension between the surface and its undercurrents?

The B-flat Minor Sonata closed the evening. The reading was fascinating. Zimerman wanted to capture the tumultuousness of the first movement. He did, with occasionally exaggerated speeds, and so there was some sacrifice in clarity. The pianist used the same approach in the Finale, but this time, for me, it worked: One sensed the push and pull of the "wind over the grave." It was spellbinding. To be noted is the Trio, in the middle of the "Funeral March," for all its simple gravity, expressive restraint and melancholy beauty. It was spellbinding, too, for completely different reasons.