Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in C, K 330
Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Frederic Chopin: Ballade No. 4, Four Mazurkas, Op. 24, Sonata in B-flat Minor
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Artur Rubinstein did not play Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor for many, many years because he had the experience of having acquaintances die after two such performances. The funerary content, of course, is what spooked him, but I think that the sheer power of the piece also made him tremble. Like it or not, the sonata is forever associated with that third movement, in the same way that the ”Moonlight” is always immediately identified by its famous introduction. For a performance to be great, the funeral march must be great.
And so it was on Monday evening as Krystian Zimerman came the closest to the level of communicating the music of Heaven itself that any artist has achieved in some years. We knew that it would be a superb night from the outset, as Zimerman began with the Mozart C Major Sonata, K. 330 with a touch so delicate that a well-known critic seated just in back of me let out an instant and quite audible sigh. This primitive prediction was spot on, as the entire recital was of the highest possible caliber. The Allegretto in particular was pure Enlightenment joy, no impediments to the supreme bliss of ordered reason.
For me, the real test was the Valse nobles et sentimentales of Maurice Ravel. I do not especially care for this piece, but apparently I had never heard it played properly before. This Zimerman rendition was positively revelatory, the freedom of gigantic dynamic contrasts allowing him to squeeze all of the élan vital of the work right into my ears. His fortissimos were incredible, his pianissimos sublime. He also had the nerve to hold individual notes for an extremely long duration, the overtones echoing more and more faintly throughout the hall like stray moments of gamelan. Magical.
Okay, but we really came for this Pole’s signature Chopin and we were not at all disappointed. The best performance of the night was the Ballade No. 4. Opening very mysteriously, it developed quickly as a surprisingly rubato-less traversal, relying for its power not on poetic phrasing but rather incisive and thoughtfully placed dynamic changes (and bags full of technique). Zimerman actually stopped dead at one point just before the final arpeggiated passages. And then, a breathtaking conclusion: My hands began to hurt just watching him play so accurately so fast.
After the interval were the Four Mazurkas, Op. 24, all presented as just slightly askew rhythmically. The second of these, in C Major, is the most famous, and I have never heard it better.
One of the most perceptive comments from that most eloquent of music critics, Robert Schumann, was that the B-flat Minor was really not a sonata at all, rather that Chopin had “…merely bound together four of his most reckless children.” In Zimerman’s hands, the kids were really rambunctiously bipolar. The Grave first movement was thrilling and it was inspiring to watch how this master craftsman built such a noble yet troubled edifice – a statue of a Caeser. There was some sloppiness in the left hand, but one had to strain to hear it. Again, Zimerman held lone notes to the end of their spiraling circle of fifths, breaking with all tradition to forge a refreshingly new and harmonically logical approach.
The third movement was solemnly paced. This should not be necessary to state, except that I have heard many versions where it is not – I am convinced that Mahler wrote the third movement of his Symphony # 1 in response to bad performances of this section. There was a decided inexorability to this reading that sent chills. And, for a final masterstroke, KZ did not pause even one full beat before running through the insane Presto that is this work’s bizarre conclusion.
This storied Marche funebre was not only spectral, but seemed to tread gingerly on that equatorial line between Heaven and Hell. My companion noted during our descent into the Tartarean world of the subway that this was the closest that we would ever come to hearing the music of the spheres. I disagreed, but, then again, we have very different views of the afterlife.
Frederick L. Kirshnit