RECITAL / Zest for variety: Krystian Zimerman at the South Bank, reviewed by Adrian Jack

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The Independent Culture
Bringing your own piano helps. Krystian Zimerman hadn't got far into Bach's Passacaglia in C minor before it was clear that we were in for a rare treat: radiant piano sound, perfectly in focus, in the usually bleak acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall.

His recital on Thursday was built on works in variation form. Zimerman's own arrangement of Bach's great organ work might have eclipsed everything that followed, had he not chosen the programme with such an astute sense of contrast and balance.

The toy-like variations attributed to the eight-year-old Schubert which followed were, Zimerman suggested, a 'coffee-break' between Bach's powerful emotions and the cooler, more shallow elegance (my description, not his) of Mendelssohn's Variations serieuses which Zimerman played not just with meticulous polish and the loveliest shades of tone, but also with irresistible zest.

After the interval, he launched Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales with what German speakers expressively call Schwung. The eight continuous pieces can sometimes sound like dry and chalky pastels. They're not really variations, but more like Schumann's cycles of short pieces, and Zimerman gave them the colourfulness of a Carnaval, catching out the unwary who applauded prematurely, if quite understandably, after his tremendous ebullience in the seventh waltz. The eighth, a dreamy resume, he gave the open-ended feel of an improvisation.

Webern's Variations were also treated to more expressive intensity and, in the first movement, more rhythmic pliancy, than usual. Throughout, only Zimerman's dancing left foot gave away the tension of the syncopated silences. Few pianists are more composed than he is, and opening Szymanowski's early Variations on a Polish Theme, he leaned back easily with a sense of pure pleasure. By then we were ready for something rousing yet not too demanding, and this splashy, highly pianistic showpiece filled the bill. A few unexpected harmonies and an almost cussed switch of key for the fugal variation towards the end indicated the 18-year- old composer's budding spirit of enterprise. Perhaps Zimerman will give us mature Szymanowski next time.