Piano roll: Krystian Zimerman in anti-Swiss outburst

Piano roll: Krystian Zimerman in anti-Swiss outburst


norman lebrecht

September 13, 2018

The Polish-born pianist, who has lived in Switzerland for years, made an extraordinary speech before his encores at the Lucerne Festival on Tuesday.

After a short reminiscence of his friendship with Leonard Bernstein, he digressed into a diatribe against the arms industry, singling out the Swiss for criticism over their record of supplying arms to countries that are engaged in civil war.

The audience, which included senior Swiss politicians, responded with tepid applause.

Zimerman last used a concert platform for political purposes in 2009 when he spoke out in Los Angeles against US missile deployment policy. He has not returned since to the US.

The Lucerne Festival said this was the first time its stage has been used for a political speech.



  • Brian says:

    Good for him. A courageous artist with an opinion. Spoken at the right time, before the encores.

    And now let’s sit back and wait for all the “Shut up and play” comments!

    • John G. says:

      Hey, if I’m paying $100 per ticket, I’d appreciate the performer keeping the concert hall “politics free zone.”

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==After a short reminiscence of […] Bernstein, he digressed

    No, not a digression – the subjects were linked. The Swiss press reported KZ saying that Bernstein spent his life against violence, weapons and wars,

  • Colin fischer says:


  • Rob says:

    He certainly hit the right note

  • Furzwängler says:

    “Plans for huge roof bar at Royal Festival Hall condemned as shocking”

    What else would one expect from the Guardian?

  • Irina says:

    In 2009 not just Los Angeles , but in Seattle too. I was there!!
    He played fantastic. But his speech was shock!

  • Stephan Walliser says:

    It’s a little more complex than that: the Swiss government is trying to lower the threshold for arms exports. There is widespread resistance against it in Switzerland itself – in a broad alliance of parties and individuals. A plebiscite is in preparation! Living in Switzerland, Zimerman (rightly!) supports this resistance movement. His comments were most probably directed at Swiss policy-makers and, above all, voters at the KKL, not the international audience.

  • Helene Kamioner says:

    Does anyone know in what language he gave his speech? And can we get a copy?

    • Furzwängler says:

      Most likely in German, as Luzern is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. And most likely in Hochdeutsch, as his Swiss-German might not have been up to it.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Good for him. I’d like to hear his opinion about BDS. Cannot imagine him being against the movement (which, by the way, is on the way to being outlawed in the US, making a mockery of freedom of speech and democracy).

  • Doug says:

    What would he say about the Dalai Lama? Or should I now refer to him as “literally Hitler”? You leftists are all obedient empty headed sheep and Zimerman is just a slightly bigger sheep.


    • Tamino says:

      It’s actually a proven statistical fact, that left wingers are better educated than right wingers in average. Usually lack of financial success turns well educated people into socialists. The same happening to numbskulls usually turns them into right wingers. See the current US Trump supporters.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        If by left wingers or socialists you mean liberals, then how do you explain that Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and generally most or all of the famous high tech billionaires are liberal?

        • Tamino says:

          I think you misunderstood. I mean *if* educated people lack financial success, they have a tendency to become socialists.
          And please no f****d up US terminology. Their ‚left‘ (democrats) is anything but. They would be considered centrist-right in Europe.
          And the term ‘liberal’, well it’s a fact the US has bastardized the word. Classical liberalism is what it should be reserved for, but that ship has sailed.
          There is nothing liberal in particular about the Democrats in the US.

        • Sue says:

          The answer to that resides in the fact that (a) they have so much money already that government clawing it back matters little to them, and (b) they’ve used ruthless means to earn it and being a ‘progressive’ means they have the opportunity for people to like them instead of hating them (which is the default position for the left when it comes to wealth). Easy when you know how. People fall for virtue signalling big time.

  • Alex Davies says:

    Something that has always puzzled me about Zimerman is why, if he is such a patriotic Pole, he chooses to live in Switzerland. I’ve visited Poland more than I’ve visited any other country, and I’d happily live there (to the extent that it’s something I’m looking into doing in the future).

    • Jonathan Dunsby says:

      He once said something about the pollution in PL affecting his lungs.
      But I guess he’s a tax exile.

    • Tamino says:

      Who said he is a patriotic Pole? Are you in an echo chamber?

      • Alex Davies says:

        Nothing to do with an echo chamber. I was referring to the famous “Get your hands off my country” speech. Those sound like the words of somebody who feels a close identification with Poland. A less patriotic person who say something more measured like, “Please urge your government to rescind the proposed installation of a missile defence shield in Poland.” I would not describe myself as patriotic about Britain. It just happens to be the place where I currently live and whose government has been kind enough to issue me with a National Insurance number and passport. So if I objected to the presence of US armed forces on British soil I’d probably say something like, “I believe that the strategic interests of the UK would be best served by the withdrawal of US forces from the UK.” I wouldn’t say, “Get your hands off my country!”, because I wouldn’t feel strongly enough about it to use those terms, and because I don’t really think of it as “my country”. Mr Zimerman, on the other hand, clearly feels strong about Poland and clearly feels a sense of belonging to it.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    His heart is in the right place, speaking up and calling out politicians is fair in my opinion. But why stay away from the US for political reasons? I bet a majority of his public in the US don’t identify with the policies he denounced back in 2009. If he came to the US now and spoke up against the current undeserving resident of the White House, the vast majority of the public would be on his side. Especially at Carnegie Hall: the Racist-in-Chief received 10% in Manhattan and 19% in the entire NYC area.

    • Tamino says:

      AFAIK biggest reason for him not returning to US is the absolutely barbaric way the US customs treated him and completely destroyed his personal beloved Steinway he was traveling with as cargo, on purpose.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        It’s hard to think that there is no connection between Zimerman’s abstention from the USA and the incidents with his pianos. Yet his last tour was in 2009, while the incidents happened in 2001 and 2006.
        How do you know whether they destroyed the piano on purpose?

      • buxtehude says:

        Actually is was in 2001 that US customs totaled his beloved Steinway — their sniffers evidently mistook its glue for explosive. As he explains it — I think here — his 2009 decision to boycott the US was prompted by his young daughter’s challenge, over the Iraq war. Evidently we was raising her to Do the Right Thing.

        Here is a completely fascinating BBC interview with KZ from 2009; it’s the first of five parts, the others you can easily find. Z’s dry humor is magnified by the interviewer’s fear of him, prompted by the reclusive pianist’s rep for eccentricity.

        Among his subjects: why he always takes his piano on tour with him; and why modern tech interferes with music appreciation by rendering composers’ scores too clearly, and promotes performances that are too detailed.


    • Tamino says:

      Me and others I know also hate to visit the US these days. The border regime is humiliating for ‘aliens’ (as we are called by them) and reminds of the worst Soviet Union times.
      If it wasn’t sometimes necessary to visit dear friends or family, I would never set foot in that country again.
      They pay top musicians well though.
      If you don’t care that much about money, then you don’t have to have a carreer their though.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Petros writes: “the current undeserving resident of the White House”.

      Look, he may by a selfish ignorant uncouth blowhard with a sense of entitlement and no real interest in the rest of society. But he DID win the election, according to the rules. So he undoubtedly deserves to be President. You may think the people who voted for him were stupid to do so, but they did. Perhaps if you showed more respect for him and the concerns of his voters, you may be able to find a candidate who might beat him next time.

      • buxtehude says:

        Showing respect for this sinister buffoon is a lost cause that will achieve less than nothing; that ship sailed long ago. Showing respect for the pressing concerns of All voters — not just his! — is more to the point.

  • patrick says:

    Frankly Zimmerman voice resonates when it comes to Music. Why his opinion about what the swiss government does or not should be more valuable than your or my opinion and why should we have to listen to him when we go to a concert to listen to Schubert or Chopin?

    • ED says:

      His opinion isn’t automatically more valuable than yours or mine – I guess that depends on how relatively informed we all are. But you have to listen to his views.. well, at least unless you choose to miss out on his encores. Theoretically, you could walk out. Ultimately, he has a platform, and sometimes he chooses to use it. Don’t see why people get so shocked by this.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Can’t wait to read his memoir: “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”

    • Bruce says:

      His title might be “How To Get Rid Of People Who Aren’t Actually Your Friends.”

      (He’s obviously beyond the desperate-for-audiences stage of his career where he needs to endear himself to every single person on earth so they will buy tickets & recordings; and the number of people he’s likely to alienate with talk like this is probably quite small.)

  • Sue says:

    Let him make his comments; we live in the age of narcissism where everybody thinks he or she needs to be heard on every single subject. No difference here or with the execrable Barenboim. They all contribute to the global wall of noise and one person’s opinion is no better or worse than anybody else’s. Just put your fingers in your ears until he plays the piano. That’s my advice. And try and remember “it’s all about meeeeeee”. Oh, and the need to fill every tiny crevice of the burgeoning media with trivia.

  • Don Ciccio says:

    I will give Zimerman big marks when he’ll make similar speeches (i.e. attacking hosts’ nation’s military policies) in Moscow, St. Petersburg (not the Florida one), Beijing, or Shanghai.

    Well, I suppose he’s not suicidal, so he’ll continue making speeches like these in the West. But don’t say he’s courageous.

  • Gordon Freeman says:

    Whoa what is going on? Where are the “Shut up and play” comments? Where are the people saying “Politics has no place on the stage”? Have they finally realised that if they boycotted every artist who made political statements or wrote political works, they’d no longer be able to listen to Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Strauss, Bernstein, Zimerman, Menuhin, Gitlis, Shostakovich, Mozart, etc etc etc etc… they may not be left with much to listen to. Delius perhaps? What’s great music for fascists? Silence?

    • adista says:

      Funny, Zimerman wouldn’t even rate a footnote among those other giants you listed. He is the living, breathing definition of the word “pretentious” and has always taken himself way too seriously.

      • nimitta says:

        No, Adista, whatever his political views, Zimerman is a living, breathing exemplar of pianistic excellence. He is truly one of the great pianists of the past century, and I’ve never attended a concert of his that wasn’t magnificent and memorable. His few recordings are all of them treasures. That he is a serious artist is indisputable, but he has a marvelous sense of humor and a unique, incomparable sensibility.

        Your comment, on the other hand, strikes me as pretentious – that is, pretending to greater insight than you seem to possess.

        • buxtehude says:

          Agree 100%.

          For his views on the nature and purpose of music — and his mental and moral weight — I recommend again the entertaining BBC interview I linked to above, and a lovely masterclass also available on YT.

      • eveline kujman says:

        what?!?! zimerman will be rated above all

  • Anon says:

    Zimmerman is pretentious. Banns all electronic devices during rehearsals, and no onlookers. (Would be nice for students) I am reliably informed! Nobody is that important.

  • Ulysses says:

    The diabolical Swiss armaments industry, exploitative pharmaceutical firms and unethical food companies, not to mention the unscrupulous banks, all contribute to the Swiss economy to the extent that the personal tax regime is very attractive to people such as KZ. Maybe next time he can give a speech on running with the hares and hunting with the hounds…

  • Jedwabne says:

    Zimerman is quite simply an egomaniacal boor.