What will he play? When he makes his first Ann Arbor appearance in twenty-five years, Krystian Zimerman could play almost anything. Just because he's a Polish pianist and a student of Artur Rubinstein, don't assume he'll play Chopin. It's just as likely Zimerman will play Bach, Brahms, or Webern. He could even play Polish modernist masters Karol Szymanowski or Witold Lutoslawski. He's done it before, and there's no reason to think he wouldn't do it again. But as to what exactly he'll play, don't expect to know until shortly before the concert. Zimerman is famous for not revealing his programs. Still, given his history, we can take it on faith it'll be interesting.
A better question is, how will he play it? At the peak of his powers, the fifty-year-old has the technique to play anything any way he wants. Since he won first prize at the 1975 Chopin Competition, Zimerman has demonstrated a stupendous technique, a soulful sensitivity, and a willingness to play fast and loose with tempos, all uniquely his own. And as his series of recordings for Deutsche Grammophon proves, Zimerman's individuality has only grown with the years.
There's his tone — clear, bright, warm, deep, subtle, and always absolutely lucid; everything in the music is in Zimerman's tone. There's his line — the way he shapes phrases and sculpts melodies, the way he pushes forward in developments, pulls back at climaxes, and achieves the still point of radiant silence in codas. But above all there's his tempo — daring, even reckless, in its supple strength and forceful yet supremely graceful in its passionate impetuosity. Zimerman's heroes are said to be Claudio Arrau, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Sviatoslav Richter — the three greatest pianists of the second half of the twentieth century — and many hear their heir when he plays.
An even better question is, how well will he be received? Zimerman does have his critics. None of them questions his tone or technique. But some find his approach to phrasing capricious and his manipulation of form willful. Others complain that his interpretations run the gamut from narcissistic to megalomaniacal. And there are those who call his tempos wayward, idiosyncratic, or just plain eccentric.
It could all be true. One of the things that make great pianists great is the degree of controversy their performances generate. Certainly, Zimerman is no cuddly-wuddly piano player. He challenges his critics and listeners to hear the music with fresh ears as he challenges himself to go more deeply into it, to the core of artistic creation, and then to incarnate creation in his playing.
Will he pull it off this time? Find out for yourself on Friday, October 12, in Hill Auditorium, when you can count on Zimerman to play whatever he wants any way he wants.
[Review published October 2007]