‘My piano almost dreams with me’

Krystian Zimerman
Financial Times

Nobody recognises him at the Swiss airport when we meet. In the lobby of the midtown hotel where we order coffee, nobody looks twice. That is how Krystian Zimerman likes it. One of the world's most famous pianists lives in absolute anonymity in his own city.

This is a man with a titanic reputation in the music world, with 22 recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, with homes in New York, Tokyo and Switzerland, and with a list of demands as a performer so bizarre that only an artist of his stature could get away with them.

Speaking to the press is a departure for Zimerman - in the past he has tended to avoid journalists. "Basically I'm not against interviews," he says mildly. "I just don't think that a concert or a recording is a legitimate reason to go to a newspaper. I wouldn't want to talk to somebody just to fill a concert hall."

And yet it is a concert, Zimerman's recital in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on May 23, that has prompted this encounter. To my chagrin, I have not been able to find out the programme in advance. Perhaps he could tell me what he will play?

No, he could not.

After a pause, Zimerman takes pity and explains that he has a strong aversion to announcing his programmes in advance.

"You see, I find it difficult to pin myself down and say, ‘OK, on December 23 2010 I will want to eat a steak and have tiramisu for dessert.' I try to make my programmes as late as possible, so that I only decide when I really know which piece I want to play. Otherwise people come expecting a particular piece, and I play something else, and they are disappointed."

It does drive concert promoters up the wall, Zimerman admits. But over time, an industry with no precedent for the promotion of a concert without a programme has learnt to accept his eccentricities.

He does try never to play the same pieces in the same places, so that each city on his tour itineraries receives a new programme with each visit.The matter of programming, he explains, is further complicated by the requirements of his piano. Since 1989, Zimerman has insisted on travelling with his own instrument, a Steinway concert grand to which he has made a number of modifications. As a schoolchild in Katowice (he was born in Zabrze, Poland, in 1956) he earned pocket money by helping out in a piano repair workshop.

"I started to wind strings, to repair parts of the mechanism. Poland at this time was closed off from the rest of Europe. It was the time of the cold war. You couldn't dream of getting spare parts for a Steinway. But we had plenty of Steinway pianos from the prewar era. They just needed to be repaired. So from a very early time, a piano is not just an instrument for me. I know its problems, I know what can be done to change something, and I'm not afraid to do it."

Zimerman has refined every aspect of his Steinway in order to bend it to his will, interchanging separate actions according to which repertoire he is performing. His narration would sound obsessive if he didn't couch it in such logical terms.

"You can slide out the keys and the mechanism for making the strings sound, and replace it with another one. And these keyboards have particular features. Like a human being. Every person is different, and has different ways of behaving and speaking."

Zimerman impregnates the hammers that strike the strings with specific chemicals, works on his piano's voicing and sound, has devised his own method of transportation, and permits no other technician to touch his instrument.

"I have invented my own ways of doing certain things, which are connected to the sound and its colours," he says. "It depends what the piece requires. Ten years ago, I would say that I adjusted the piano to the composer. Now I would go a step further, and say that I adjust it to a particular piece.

"Actually over the past few years, I have been moving away from sound. On one hand I'm very flattered that people like the sound of my piano. On the other hand I don't care about the sound. I'm looking for an adequate sound. If the piece is ugly, I want an ugly sound. I want the sound to do what I want, not to be beautiful. I've seen pianos like that. I sat down, the piano was beautiful, and the moment I wanted to change something, the piano was still beautiful, and I hated it - because the piano didn't listen to what I wanted to do. My piano is incredibly flexible. It almost dreams with me in the concert. I have an idea, and I don't even have to verbalise or to think how to do it. The piano reads it directly from my soul."

Music, asserts Zimerman, is not sound. Music is using sound to organise emotions in time. The visual aspect of a live performance, he adds, is an essential aspect of the experience. He has experimented by making video recordings of the faces of students while they perform.

"We rewound the tape and I played it back for this guy without the sound. And I said, ‘Look at this. What is he playing? Do you think people will buy that?' The answer was, ‘I'm not an actor! I'm playing the piano!'

"And I said, ‘I want you to be credible. I want you to be touched by this music. Otherwise the listeners will not be touched.' That's what I mean by credibility. I'm incredibly egoistic in a concert hall. I really want to experience the pieces."

In order to achieve this, Zimerman explains, he has a simple technique: that of not practising.

"Often I don't work on a piece at home. I know what I want to do. I look at some fragments. I work on the craftsmanship, and on the piano. And then I play the piece for the first time in the concert hall. It's very dangerous, and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. But for me it keeps the music fresh. The moment I start to practise something, I kill it.

"It's like a declaration of love. If you intend to tell a person in the evening that you love her, you don't spend the afternoon in front of the mirror watching what your lips do when you form the words, ‘I love you.' You don't need to. And I don't need to play the piece at home. I will tell them that I love them in the concert hall. And that's enough."