Krystian Zimerman, Royal Festival Hall, London

Reviewed,Dward Seckerson
Thursday 29 May 2008 00:00

Krystian Zimerman had his piano's mechanism changed after the Bach Partita. Colour is important to every pianist but especially Zimerman, and from Bach to Beethoven should have marked the first seismic shift of the evening. That it didn't was an indication that this was to be an evening where virtuosity and sonic sensitivity took precedence over spiritual fulfilment.

The Partita No.2 in C minor took a while to settle. The opening was arresting but the Sinfonia's allegro sounded harassed. In the Allemande came the first sonic magic of the evening with the reprise suddenly remote, caught in a beautiful half-light. This was very controlled, contained Bach.

But for the change of keys and hammers (quickly executed by a technician), the Beethoven was, too. The sound was fuller and deeper now, but Beethoven's last Sonata in C minor Op.111 demands much more than a change of colour. Our recent experience with Barenboim highlighted what was missing from Zimerman's account. There must be some sense of a musical evolution beyond what is technically achievable. Beethoven's precipitous contrasts and modulations need to sound unexpected, as if in the grip of forces beyond one's control. But Zimerman saw them all coming. When the Arietta arrived, it was attended with such reverence as to sound like an inevitability. The variants – particularly the "boogie-woogie" departure – were consequently less than audacious in their effect. The trill-festooned star-gazing of the final pages was mesmerising – it just wasn't transcendent.

Brahms followed – Klavierstücke Op.119 – and the opening Intermezzo was beautiful, melting cadences one after another belying that the piano is a percussive instrument. The sumptuousness of Zimerman's Brahms suggested a string-based sonority; its amplitude was positively orchestral. So, too, his countryman Karol Szymanowski's early Variations on a Polish Theme. Here was all the evidence you needed that Zimerman is a master colourist – the range of chord weightings alone seemed inexhaustible, not least in the Chopinesque funeral march variation. But I'd have sacrificed all this virtuosity for just one unexpected bar of Beethoven.

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