Symphony plays Lutoslawski

Krystian Zimerman
San Francisco Chronicle

It happened to pianist Krystian Zimerman, whose 1975 victory at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw eventually led Witold Lutoslawski to compose his Piano Concerto. It's a work of intricate beauty and powerful energy, and its blend of ferocity and expressive tenderness is a tribute not only to Lutoslawski's imagination but also to the fervor of Zimerman's keyboard artistry.

That artistry was on display in Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon, when Zimerman made a long-overdue San Francisco Symphony debut with conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Zimerman's rare solo recitals have been among the most exciting local musical events of recent years, and his distinctive brand of aristocratic expressiveness shone through again on this occasion.

The Lutoslawski concerto is designed to be a vehicle for just that combination of qualities. Unfolding in four movements played without a break, it offers a tip of the hat to the Romantic keyboard tradition - Chopin above all, but also Beethoven and Rachmaninoff - that is clothed in the angular rhythms and clangorous sonorities of the composer's late-modern style.

All the familiar elements of Lutoslawski's extensive creative arsenal are in place - the astonishing command of orchestral color, the use of controlled chance processes to create a focused blur of sound, the rhythmic palette that is both rigorous and flexible. But much of the joy in this piece comes from watching the composer deploy those resources in the service of something that might be called crypto-neo-Romanticism, a rich but deftly disguised homage to Chopin, his (and Zimerman's) great Polish forebear.

The reference is clearest in the passages for solo piano, which often adopt Chopin's practice of filling rhythmic downbeats with flurries of keyboard filigree. Lutoslawski 's harmonic language is worlds away from Chopin's, naturally, but the texture and expressive weight of his writing are unmistakably akin to those of his predecessor.

And as the concerto goes on, a sense of dialogue builds up between the two composers - as though Lutoslawski were both learning from his colleague and demonstrating to him some of the interesting new things that have sprung up in music since 1830.

Zimerman's patrician stage presence and astonishing keyboard technique helped the performance straddle both worlds. He brought athletic muscle to the concerto's most explosive outbursts, while retaining the ability to whisper and insinuate in the concerto's most intimate passages.

The slow third movement especially - a dialogue between piano and orchestra reminiscent of the similar spot in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto - Zimerman conjured up all the music's disparate threads at once in a fusion of Chopinesque delicacy and rhetorical urgency. Blomstedt and the orchestra helped create an eloquent partnership.

The orchestra came fully into its own after intermission, with a rare and persuasive account of Bruckner's Second Symphony. This is not a piece we get to hear very often - the only previous Symphony performance was in 1977, under Seiji Ozawa - and the omission is both understandable and unfortunate.

The reason is that the Second finds Bruckner laying out his materials in pure and unadulterated form. The four basic movement types that would continue to define his symphonic world are there, as are his blocky formal structures, his distinctive melodic and harmonic language and his efficient but expansive orchestral style.

What's lacking are the intricacies and developmental shifts that Bruckner increasingly added to this formula as his confidence and mastery grew. If you were to assemble everything that makes Bruckner's style recognizable while leaving out everything that makes any particular symphony of his unique, you'd wind up with something very like the Second.

Still, Bruckner has always been one of Blomstedt's strengths as a conductor, and Thursday's performance - broad-beamed, vigorous and full of rhythmic momentum - was never less than engrossing.