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Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Preludes Op. 1: Nos 1,2,7 & 8
Masques Op. 34
Mazurkas Op. 50 Nos 13-16
Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op. 10
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
rec. 2022, Fukuyama Hall of Art and Culture, Japan; except May 1994, Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen (Masques)
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

There are a small group of pianists whose touch is so unmistakable that it is obvious who is playing from the second they strike a key. People like Emil Gilels, Alfred Brendel and Vladimir Horowitz belong to this group. And so does Krystian Zimerman. That slightly clipped dryness like the bouquet of fine champagne. That intensity like a bent bow. That extreme care over every note. Those surprising eruptions of volcanic virtuosity out of exquisite delicacy. If you have heard him play then you already know what I’m talking about. I did have doubts about him playing the music of his compatriot, Karol Szymanowski. My daft logic went something like: doesn’t this music need something splashier, something riper than the chiselled perfection of Zimerman? I love it when musicians prove my dull imagination wrong!!

Zimerman doesn’t release many records – his last solo one was in 2017, though Covid probably had something to do with that – but what he does generally has a compelling sense that Zimerman felt it had to be released. Polishness seems an important matter to him given that those sparse releases have featured Bacewicz and Lutoslawski so a reckoning with Szymanowski was always inevitable. The programme chosen takes astutely from every era of the composer’s output and it is testament to Zimerman’s playing that I was left wanting more from each of those stylistic periods, whether early Scriabin flavoured Chopin style preludes, the spiky ‘I can do modernism too’ Masques or the quietly elliptical Mazurkas that saw a homecoming to the folk music of his native land but in a way that marvellously fused everything Szymanowski had learnt during his musical life.

The spirit of Arthur Rubinstein, the composer’s great friend and muse at the piano, inevitably hovers somewhere in the background of this recording yet Zimerman, very sensibly, goes his own way. It is high praise to say that the younger pianist’s rubato is just as seductive as that of the older legend even if it is quieter and more reserved (though not necessarily less radical!) This is an album that repays close listening as the depth of subtlety and nuance are where its true magic lie.

The last piece in the programme, Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, an early work, offers a conspectus of Zimerman’s talents. It blazes, it coddles, it sings, it laments and Zimerman finds colours and rhythms to bring it all to scintillating life. There is even a grandiose funeral march. Anyone who knows Zimerman’s epochal recording of the Debussy preludes will know that with the Polish pianist it is as much about the range of his fantasy as it is about playing the piano. It might seem a little perverse suggesting starting a recording with its final work but the interpretation of these Variations captures everything that is superlative about it. It is an open jawed extravaganza from first iridescent note to thunderous last.

One of the curiosities of this record is the 28 year gap between the taping of Masques and the rest of the programme. It is highly typical of Zimerman that he was right to wait to find the right acoustic. By comparison the sound on Masques sounds a little too dry though there is an argument that this suits this tougher music better.

There are no caveats whatsoever about Zimerman’s sensational performance of these pieces. The second one, Tantris Le Boufon, shows that he can mix it with the most ferocious of klaviertiger but without sacrificing wit or sophistication.

Perhaps the finest performances of all are reserved for the esoteric reserved Mazurkas. In the wrong hands these can seem enigmatic to the point of cussedness. With Zimerman, they seem infused with a radiant poetry even when they stamp their feet as though lit up by the light of a setting sun. Zimerman is marvellous at capturing their shadows too.

All of Zimerman’s best records leave me wishing he made more recordings just as I know that their scarcity is what makes them so special as the products of care and love and attention. This is the effect of this latest releases. It has been a very strong year for piano records but Zimerman is still showing how it is done.

David McDade

Published: November 25, 2022

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