Krystian Zimerman, won’t you please come home?

The Polish pianist has not set foot in the United States since, on 26 April 2009 at Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles, he swore never to return until America removed its missile defense shield from his country.

The US pianist Zsolt Bognár misses him badly. Zsolt has been listening to an astounding 1994 concert performance of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme. He shares his regrets with Slipped Disc:

The night before I played my Suntory Hall debut in 2009, I heard Krystian Zimerman play a recital in the adjacent hall of the same elegant venue. The program included Bach’s c minor Partita, Beethoven’s last sonata, Opus 111, the Brahms Opus 119 set, and a barnstorming performance of Karol Szymanowski’s transcendentally difficult Variations on a Polish Theme—the same work before which, some days earlier in Los Angeles, the pianist hesitated then addressed a message about American missile installations in Poland to a stunned audience. The ensuing performance was tense for audience and performer alike: Mr. Zimerman had announced it would also be his final appearance in the United States.

Meeting him backstage in Tokyo, I found Mr. Zimerman, as I had on many occasions before—from Chicago, to Boston and Cleveland—to be thoughtful and measured in conversation, regal in poise, dress, and manner as he listened. I asked if Los Angeles would indeed be his last appearance in the United States. He replied quickly to the contrary that although he would likely steer clear of major concert circuits, he planned to visit conservatories and universities, and hoped to start a dialogue with students about why he had taken such a stand. To the substantial loss of devoted concertgoers across the country, a prolific musician in his prime would indeed remain entirely vanished from its musical stages ever since.

Krystian Zimerman, a pianist who idolized the similarly elusive Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, surpassed in some capacities the often superhuman craftsmanship with an artistry all his own, combining pianistic sheen with the warmth of Artur Rubinstein and the dramatic narrative of his other idol, Maria Callas. But to assess Zimerman’s art is not as simple as listening to his catalogue of highly-crafted commercial recordings, which range from almost literal and didactic in his early reading of Schumann’s Concerto with Karajan, to pristine and glowing balance in his cycle of Beethoven Concerti in Vienna with Bernstein, and an intimate and improvisatory freedom in his recent album of the last two Schubert Sonatas.

To hear Zimerman in concert, however, was immersion in dramatic fervor—an entirely different artist with infinitely more colors and sonorities, rhetoric on an operatic scale, and a sense of moment that even seemed to pick up on the energy and response of the venue and audience. His 2002 Brahms recital in Carnegie Hall specifically outdid itself because of the audience present; the final chords were the culmination of an epic journey fueled with exhilaration of an Olympian runner empowered in the final stretch. In concert, his sound shimmered with a brilliant upper register and gem-like clarity. Bass sonorities were massive, even frightening—benefitting from the incredible Steinways he used from his own collection of nearly a dozen, which he also serviced and voiced himself. Zimerman’s artistry on stage breathed, sighed, and thundered with ever-changing power.

A rare concert recording

Krystian Zimerman’s 1994 Ludwigsburg concert recording of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme—a work he never released commercially—not only captures the breathtakingly expanded range of the musician in performance, but is one of the highest pinnacles in the recorded history of the instrument. As a lifelong collector of rare concert recordings, I owned a private copy of this performance since my days as a student; I also recently discovered it from a 2012 upload with comparatively few views given its stature. In it, one witnesses white-hot pianism, nostalgic laments, cathartic declamations, the visionary half-light of early Scriabin, and in the funeral march (from 10:08) there is a crescendo to the most massive and cursed bell-like sonorities imaginable.

The left-hand barrage of octaves at 3:50 is jaw-dropping also for its clarity and momentum. Szymanowski’s wistful rhetoric is present even in the most athletic passages, and in the hands of Zimerman is a revelation of thought and heart. The resignation at 7:30 is reminiscent of Vladimir Sofronitsky, and the ecstatic surges of sound from 13:29 are of vitality unlike any of Zimerman’s commercial recordings. Szymanowski’s piano-writing at 16:10 rivals Liszt’s in Feux Follets, here deployed with beguiling lightness. The fugue from 16:33 is electrifying in its heroic outbursts. The drive to the end from 18:25 is to be heard to be believed.

Krystian Zimerman’s appearances in the United States were already witness to unusual happenings before Los Angeles, with issues ranging from traveling with his own pianos in a climate of heightened border security, to incidents in New York involving the alleged recording of performances by audience members, bringing events to a halt at the request of the performer. On other notable occasions, humanistic and political stands were verbally addressed to the audience regarding specific issues.

photo:DG

The question of the overlap of politics and music is not new, but here it concerns self-exclusion and the absence of a major artist. Sviatoslav Richter said the two issues were inseparable, citing Don Carlo and Tosca as examples. In Hungarian interviews, Richter even declared his artistic duty as musician to be no different than his patriotic duty—a contradiction indeed from a performer who elsewhere proclaimed indifference to politics and worldly matters. Krystian Zimerman’s illustrious compatriot Ignacy Jan Paderewski faced the question as well: he was a pianist-composer whose consummate fame included his becoming Prime Minister of Poland in 1919, signing the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I.

Aside from our lament at the absence of his gripping performances and artistry, the need for art and humanistic vision in today’s world has never been greater—and the strife publicly decried from the stage in Los Angeles is arguably far greater now. The urgency of Krystian Zimerman’s unique art and message is most effective through its presence rather than its absence. It’s time for a return.

(c) Zsolt Bognar

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Outside of his argument with the US I don’t have the impresion that he gives a lot of concerts these days.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    He is always looking for an opportunity for political grandstanding

    • Simon Behrman says:

      Genuine question: what do you see as the difference between political grandstanding and genuine political belief honestly expressed? And why do you think Zimmerman is doing the former?

      • Mike Schachter says:

        Musicians have the right to political views like anyone else. They are no more important than anyone else’s. Advertising them by what and where you play suggests that you are more important than other people.

        • Simon Behrman says:

          Thanks for your considered response to my question.

          I agree that the views of musicians are no more important than anyone else’s. But I am not sure that Zimerman would say that either. He was explaining to his audience why he would not be returning to play for them there. Surely that is an honest and open way to relate to his audience?

          Also, music and artistic history is full of political statements – from the Eroica symphony, Die Meistersinger, Toscanini’s outspoken refusal to perform in fascist countries, Picasso’s Guernica, Bernstein conducting Beethoven 9 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall all come to mind. Would you say they were all wrong to use their artistic platform to make political statements?

          In my view, great art is often (not always) inseparable from politics. One of the tragedies of the contemporary classical music scene is precisely that it often appears to have little to say about the contemporary world.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            The contemporary classical music scene has a lot to say about the contemporary world, it is just that most people really are not much interested in the often woke obsessions of many of the people making their statements.

      • Barry says:

        I think his periodic political outbursts during concerts are more problematic. I disagree with his politics, but it’s his right to play where he wants. However, an audience that pays to hear him play music and obviously doesn’t all agree with him shouldn’t be held as a captive audience to his non-musical viewpoints.

        • Patrick says:

          By now audiences should probably plan on non-musical commentary. If that is not important to you, don’t buy a ticket! Problem solved.

  • Stephen Harding says:

    I heard the same recital programme in Basingstoke (UK) at The Anvil in about 2008 and it was definitely one of the best piano recitals I’ve ever been to in 45 years of concert going. The Szymanowski was astonishing, in fact the while programme was pretty special with a complete change of piano keyboard and action after the Bach Partita. I agree that the full range of his playing is not captured on his recordings. I also remember a London performance of Chopin’s 2nd Sonata where he achieved his stated aim (from a radio interview) of making the end of the funeral march sound like a procession retreating into the distance, still playing loudly but from afar.

    • Thank you for these remarks, Stephen–I remember that effect as he achieved it in the Chopin–and the funeral march in this piece in the above recording is in a different way also astounding–I’ve never heard a sound like that on the piano. And it’s captured here, and it seems we were also lucky enough to witness it in person. Best wishes from Cleveland

      • Gchien says:

        Yes, I was lucky enough to hear that Chopin at Spivey – one of the most astonishing experiences ever. Genius. Please come back!
        While you are at it, could you Please invite Sokolov as well? Two of the greatest minds of our time that I wish would return!

  • IF Stoner says:

    Political grandstanding is when he says something you don’t agree with. Free speech is when he says something you agree with. Anyway, he’s an amazing pianist. I will gladly suffer just to listen to him live. But it so happens that I agree with what he says about US foreign policy. I think he travels with his own piano. It might be that he doesn’t want the TSA at JFK destroying his Steinway.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      I think it is unnecessary and self-indulgent whether you agree with it or not. Much worse problem with actors than musicians.

  • Barbara says:

    Plenty more fish in the sea….

  • fliszt says:

    There are proper venues for expressing one’s political views, such as a letter to the editor of major newspapers, approaching senators and congressmen in Washington, addressing the UN, etc. But torchering your audiences who came to hear your music (and not your political pain) accomplishes nothing. What has Martha Argerich accomplished by not playing in America because she feels that Dutoit has been unfairly treated?

  • Edgar Self says:

    I particularly value his Chopin concertos directing the Polish Festival Orchestra on tour and saw him play memorable recital in Chicago many years ago.

    Were Barenboim and Furtwaengler politically grand-standing? You can’t win.

  • adista says:

    Zimerman is the Keith Jarrett of classical music. A good pianist, but also a pompous ass who takes himself way too seriously.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Zimerman gives very few concerts in recent years. He reminds me of Carlos Kleiber. As far as I know this concert season he is only scheduled to give two performances of the “Emperor” concerto in Dresden.

  • Patrick says:

    Another extraordinary artist lost in politics.

  • Esfir says:

    WE WERE @ THAT LA CONCERT !!!
    The memories of the shock,disbelief & horror of his hatred to all of us, THE AUDIENCE, still alive !!!
    We would never want to hear him again !

  • We privatize your value says:

    So Zimerman wantos something removed that hasn’t been installed in the first place? https://www.reuters.com/article/us-poland-defence-usa/poland-says-u-s-missile-shield-site-delayed-until-2020-idUSKBN1GY2RE

  • Larry D says:

    I was there at Disney Hall for that rant. Unfortunately, since I was sitting in the upper rear, though I had a wonderful view of his hands on the keyboard, much of his political opinions were inaudible. I remember people around me saying in response to his “keep your hands off my country”, asking “which country? Doesn’t he live in Switzerland?” It did seem odd, since apparently Poland had requested to be part of the missile shield, that his gripe would be as much with the Polish government as with the USA. Does he refuse to play in Warsaw also? I suppose the chances of a Command Performance at the White House are nil now, though rumor has it Trump is a YUGE fan.

  • Terence says:

    It’s easy to be brave in Western countries.

    But where are the musicians who would make political statements on stage in China or Russia?

    (Assuming they could find an interpreter willing to voice their remarks – which is unlikely.)

    Would Zimmerman do it in Moscow? As a Polish speaker he could probably manage enough Russian.

  • ZimermanFan says:

    If anything, I would very much love to see his live performance in the near future in US. If he could change his mind to come and play in US, it would be wonderful. We have totally different political environment now in US since his last appearance. I think US audience now would be much more nonchalant towards any political outburst 🙂 He is one of the indispensable musician as I again realized listening his Szymanowski piece.
    I know he gives concerts regularly in East Asia these days. Why not in US?

  • >