Tell Me a Story
Frederic Chopin: Impromptu in F Sharp, Scherzo #2, Three Mazurkas, Op. 56, Fantasie in F Minor
Robert Schumann: Sonata #1
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Not that anyone has ignored the narrative music of Chopin over the years, but there has been a particular emphasis on this quintessentially Romantic device in recent programming. The 150th death anniversary fast approaches (October) and recitalists seem to have rediscovered this most passionate of forms. Recently I have reviewed several concerts in this now out-of-favor medium of the sonic novel, most notably the Chopin evening hosted by David Dubal and the brilliant recital of Andras Schiff featuring the rarely heard Novelletten of Schumann. Modern audiences may not truly appreciate the function of these poems for the piano. In an era before motion pictures or television, attending a musical performance was an experience akin to reading a novel (hence the term romantic) and the fullness of emotion experienced at a recital (itself a new invention) could be overwhelming (Liszt once fainted at one of his own performances). Even the novel itself was being reinvented into an expression of the previously forbidden emotional heights and depths reserved for religious experience (think of the emotional weight of the drama in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example).
The other factor previously missing from literal expression in the music was the overwhelming love of its composers for their soulmates, in these particular cases George Sand and Clara Schumann. No study of Chopin or Schumann can even remotely touch the essence of their music without an understanding of the extreme love and devotion that they respectively felt for these two remarkable women. It is not too much of an exaggeration to state that Sand is the genesis of all of Chopin’s inspiration and Clara inspired superb compositions from not one but two of the greatest composers in music history (the middle movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto #1 being the supreme example). What was refreshing about Krystian Zimerman was his deep understanding of these matters.
To dispense with the technical side first, Zimerman is a flawless practitioner. Sitting bolt upright allows him to survey the keyboard in such a manner that he is able to make great leaps and sallies into the chromatic without any hesitation. In fact confidence seems to be the image that he wishes to project. The attacks were stunning and the navigation remarkable. No wrong notes interfered with the narration of these adventure stories.
Poetically Mr. Zimerman showed himself to be of the most sensitive nature. The Chopin set seemed to be all one marvelous dream, oozing passion from its pores. To sit dispassionately and listen to this music critically is to ignore the basic subjective nature of the art form. Better to let oneself drift off into a reverie where the individual pieces form gorgeous parts of a sensuous whole. The magic was infectious and yet I was still able to force myself to do my job and appreciate the amazing finger dexterity necessary to produce this diaphanous environment. The ghosts of George Sand and Clara Schumann were very much with us this evening.
Zimerman seemed to put a punctuation mark on the performance by choosing the Romance #2 in F Sharp, Op. 28 as his encore piece. This brilliant melody is one of the supreme examples of romantic love in music and immortalizes Clara and Robert’s feelings for her as well as any tune in the repertoire ever expressed this type of idealized devotion. This was an evening to abandon oneself to the pleasures of love, not the banally expressed popular forms, but rather the subtle, intellectual longing and desire that is at the heart of this incredible music. It was wonderful to hear an artist of such daring as Mr. Zimerman, willing to let his emotions appear center stage in an unashamed performance of lyric poetry. He will be back next year, conducting from the piano the two Chopin concerti, and his echoes of the immortal style of Artur Rubinstein are already much anticipated.
Frederick L. Kirshnit