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Simply the Best

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/13/1999 -  
Frederic Chopin: Piano Concerti Nos. 1 & 2
Polish Festival Orchestra Krystian Zimerman (pianist and conductor)

Preparing to attend last night's concert at Carnegie Hall, I searched the archives of Le Concertographe to reread my review of Krystian Zimerman's marvelous recital from last season. I had rightly remembered that it was a positively thrilling performance, filled with poetic phrasing and a deep sense of romance. This consummate artist has taken the repertoire of his national hero and made it his own, much as two past Polish wizards of the keyboard had done. When Carnegie Hall was brand new in 1891, Ignace Paderewski performed the Concerto #1 under the baton of Walter Damrosch and continued to proselytize for Polish independence and culture throughout the first half of the twentieth century using Chopin's music as his primary device. Artur Rubinstein was the next in the line of Polish succession, employing daring leaps of finger dexterity and extremely delicate phrasing to win converts for these two concerti (although sometimes playing with his audience by substituting themes from one concerto into the performance of the other). Now Zimerman has assumed the mantle of Polish prince and wears it proudly and with great respect.

Expanding his role from recitalist to music director, Zimerman formed his own orchestra of young musicians and has set out on an extensive global venture playing only these two concerti. Like some vagabond rock group these minstrels travel from city to city throughout Europe presenting the large works of their compatriot. Considering Carnegie Hall's proximity to the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, it would not be surprising for some enterprising vendor to hawk Krystian Zimerman World Tour tee shirts out on 57th Street. There is definitely a festival atmosphere at these events with a large percentage of Polish Americans in attendance as well as a hearteningly healthy number of well-dressed children listening in rapt admiration to this magnetic performer.

Zimerman is the total package. His technique is nothing short of amazing. The most noticeable attribute of his physical performance is his erect posture enabling him to see the entire keyboard at all times and allowing him to successfully attempt some "Rubinstein reaches" of his own. His attack is extremely strong while his delicate touch makes one forget that there are hammers inside the body of his piano. He plays in a highly emotional style, wringing every last drop of passion out of this feverish music. His conducting from the piano is not the traditional nodding of the head but an actual deep involvement with his youthful charges. He extols his same level of passionate intensity from his string section and even encourages them to play in a more zaftig manner by hand gestures dangerously close in time to his need of that hand to play the notes. Like a well choreographed ballet the movements always work, as they should by now this far into the tour. It is easy when listening to Zimerman play Chopin to totally let oneself go and drift away from the concert hall into one's own reverie of tenderness and romance. Many listeners had their eyes closed for long periods of time last night and were transported a lot farther than most live events would normally allow.

The works are seriously flawed, being youthful compositions even within the brief creative period of this tortured Romantic composer. The orchestrations are woefully amateurish and, except for a few tutti, the winds and brass have nothing to do all night. The strings are really only there as background for the piano and stylistically the overall effect of these pieces puts me in mind of another great Polish pianist (and Paderewski student) Lee Liberace. But the experience of hearing this music performed in such a grand and loving manner is worth a dozen concerts of more serious repertoire played in the prosaic manner that haunts so many conductors of today. This is true poetry of the soul and with the eyes closed it seems to be being read by the poet himself.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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