CD review: Krystian Zimerman performs Bacewicz

Krystian Zimerman
Washington Post

By Tom Huizenga

Grazyna Bacewicz: Piano Sonata No. 2; Quintets Nos. 1 & 2. Krystian Zimerman. Deutsche Grammophon. $18.98.

It was right after playing Piano Sonata No. 2 by Grazyna Bacewicz in Los Angeles that Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman turned to the audience and delivered the shocking news that he would no longer perform in the United States because of its military policies. That was the spring of 2009, and he has not returned since.

That’s a shame because Zimerman is one of today’s most exacting and insightful pianists and one of the few champions of Bacewicz, a fellow Pole who struggled for recognition as a violinist and composer under Soviet repression and whose music deserves a wider audience.

Although Zimerman might not be playing Bacewicz here anytime soon, at least we have this new recording, a document of the aforementioned sonata and two piano quintets that he and friends performed around Europe in 2009, celebrating the centennial of Bacewicz’s birth.

Huge chords open the sonata, crashing like breakers on a craggy coastline. Bacewicz’s harmonic textures are dense and Brahmsian, her percussive energy like Prokofiev’s but spoken in a language closer to Bartok’s.

The music isn’t derivative, though. Bacewicz has her own voice, especially in the sonata’s haunting largo. The opening theme — a simple melody suspended above swaying, spacious chords — feels like a pensive calm after the storm. Its reappearance after a turbulent central section is a magical moment that suddenly evaporates.

The finale, infused with the oberek, a Polish folk dance, returns to the violence and virtuosity of the opening movement, but with a dash of wit.

Bacewicz must have been a formidable pianist to pull off the 1953 premiere. Zimerman’s performance is no less than dazzling, teeming with detail.

The sonata is flanked by a pair of terrific piano quintets. The first blends astringency with lyricism. It’s anchored by an aching and beautiful slow movement — perhaps a bittersweet reflection of 1950s life in the Eastern Bloc.

The second quintet, from 1965, finds Bacewicz in her self-described avant-garde period. It opens with a tour de force movement that is muscular, mercurial and often startling. The crepuscular larghetto, with its eerie colors and icy glissandos, rivals similar music by Bartok.

Zimerman and his handpicked colleagues seem born into this rarely heard music. We can only thank him, from afar, for introducing an unsung and extraordinary composer.