MUSIC / Polish player, polished playing: Adrian Jack reviews Krystian Zimerman's piano recital at the Barbican Hall

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The Independent Culture
THE POLISH pianist Krystian Zimerman certainly has his own style, and his Sunday afternoon recital found him on particularly spruce and disciplined form - perhaps excessively so. The revelation of the programme was the way he played the last of Debussy's three Estampes - 'Jardins sous la pluie'. Marked pianissimo, the opening sounded more like forte, and for once, the rapid, even fingerwork really did sound like a tingling downpour. Inspired contravention of selected details in the score can sometimes be preferable to their slavish observance. Anyway, Debussy's direction to be 'clean and lively' was followed and the piece's character as a brisk and brilliant toccata never more effectively realised.

If Debussy shone in brighter, fresher colours through this unorthodox treatment, Zimerman seemed to lose an important ingredient when it came to Chopin. In the Barbican Hall, the pianist has to cope with an acoustic that distances him from his audience: the sound quality is good, but thick or fast passages easily become a sonorous jumble, while the piano's upper register sounds cold and thin. I am not sure that Zimerman was well-advised to forestall the impression of remoteness by playing the slow movement of the B minor Sonata so firmly - the melody notes sounded hard and inexpressive. In the first movement, taken very crisply, a spirit of prompt action prevailed, sharpening the appetite for lyrical relief, which was held at bay even in the second subject.

The mood was dangerously near monotony, and if our interest was held, it was only because of the immaculate polish of Zimerman's playing.

When it came to Schubert's B flat major Sonata, after the interval, he allowed himself a little more elasticity. The opening theme of the first movement was shaped with affectionate attention to its contours, with just the slightest concessions of strict tempo to warm it into life, yet lovely as Zimerman's playing was, its effect was too self-conscious, too delicate to allow the movement its natural breadth and unity. So much reverent awe attaches to this work that it's easy to forget that Schubert was still a young man when he wrote it, and Zimerman's light, shining sound and crystal-clear articulation unusually suggested the soaring spirit of Schubert's extreme youth rather than the apocalyptic quality that he evolved in his late twenties. The slow movement was elegiac rather than tragic, while the scherzo emerged as a songlike dialogue between its phrases in different registers - imagined as a carefree duet between perfectly matched partners. A playful touch in the finale was the way Zimerman caught the preparatory octave of the refrain offguard each time, not so much a call to attention as an elegant 'gotcha]'. So many pianists have played the sonata in London recently, it hardly seemed a slight achievement to give it such innocence. If this music is, as Schnabel put it, better than it can ever be played, it is also considerably more.