Rebecca Franks enjoys a concert from the Polish pianist in Florence's Teatro Comunale
Everything in Krystian Zimerman’s piano playing seemed to emerge from a place of stillness and serenity in his Teatro Comunale recital in Florence last Tuesday. It wasn’t just that his pianissimo playing was exquisite, but something more philosophical – he seemed to be exploring different, often elusive and strange, emotional states of quiet and disquiet. Be it in Debussy, Brahms or Szymanowski – who all featured in the programme – this Polish pianist displayed his gift for drawing his listeners in, note by note securing their attention, rather than flamboyantly throwing the music out.
Debussy’s colourful Estampes opened the recital in a whirl of exoticism – conjuring up Japan, Spain and then cascades of rain – and all played with the clarity of texture, rhythmic precision and colourful tonal palette that Zimerman brought to the whole programme. And it was in the Debussy which followed the interval, a group of six Préludes from Book One, that Zimerman showed his credentials as one of today’s superlative pianists.
In 'Voiles', whole-tone scales float around unattached to a particular major or minor key, anchored only by a B flat tolling in the bass. As the textures thicken and the rhythms become snappier, it would be easy for the sense of being in limbo to disappear, but Zimerman kept us suspended throughout. Similarly, in the sparely written 'Des pas sur la neige', Zimerman deftly depicted that muffled hush that only comes with snow, taking us to a place that seemed to have fallen out of time and where the familiar becomes unfamiliar.
'La fille aux cheveux de lin', with its sweetly flowing melody, sounded freshly conceived; while 'Minstrels' and 'Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest' were, respectively, buoyant and dazzling. But the real highlight was 'La cathedrale engloutie': in the opening hushed spacious chords Zimerman absolutely captured the clear waters in the morning light, and a cathedral of mythical, unforgettable proportions emerged with unstoppable force.
With its jagged, passionate first movement, full of Romantic rhetoric, Brahms’s 1853 Second Piano Sonata was a complete contrast to the Debussy. Playing from the score, as he did for the whole concert, Zimerman threw himself into it with improvisatory abandon. And in the Andante con espressione second movement, Zimerman again created something unsettled and strange. In his hands, the meandering melodic line and melancholic mood recalled the final song of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, when the solitary protagonist meets a hurdy-gurdy player and faces his own mortality.
Szymanowski’s 1904 Variations on a Polish Folk Theme rounded off the programme. It opens with a simple theme played quietly, and here, for the first time, that magical hushed playing felt like a surface trick. But as the virtuosic fireworks began to fly in the variations, the musical sense of the piece came together. In the funeral march variation, Zimerman unleashed the same unstoppable force and tremendous volume of sound heard in 'La cathedrale engloutie', with a grimness not unsimilar to Bydło from Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. And a final Fugal movement suggested a kinship with Brahms, providing an unexpected link in an unusual concert programme.