Championing the Chopin concertos

Pianist Krystian Zimerman has assembled an all-Polish orchestra and devoted himself to the work of his beloved countryman

Classical Music

November 07, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When some men have a midlife crisis, they buy a red Corvette or run off with a woman half their age.

Krystian Zimerman, 43, is going through his somewhat differently.

The celebrated Polish pianist devoted more than a month last year to auditioning 450 musicians to form his own, all-Polish orchestra. He spent last summer in daily rehearsals -- one lasting 21 hours -- of Chopin's two piano concertos. In August he spent more than a week recording the two concertos for Deutsche Grammophon. And he's devoted the entire fall season to touring with his hand-picked orchestra -- which he calls the Polish Festival Orchestra -- repeating the same program, the two Chopin concertos, night after night in the 40 most important cities of North America and Europe.

"This is something I've been dreaming about for more than 20 years," says Zimerman, who will perform the Chopin concertos with the Polish Festival Orchestra to a sold-out house at the Kennedy Center Wednesday evening. How Zimerman chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Chopin's death is what most people call a busman's holiday.

Love of Chopin

Zimerman has been closely associated with the composer's music ever since he exploded into prominence 25 years ago as the youngest pianist ever to win first prize in Warsaw's prestigious Chopin International Competition. He has been particularly identified with the two concertos -- part of his repertory for his entire adult life (and most of his childhood) -- and has recorded them several times, including a celebrated 1978 version with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic that is still in the catalog.

Why would anyone want to spend so much time with the Chopin concertos? While perennial favorites of audiences and pianists, the concertos were written by an inexperienced 19-year-old composer, and they do not enjoy the reputation of his mature music. They are the only major works for orchestra in a compositional career that was otherwise almost exclusively confined to the solo piano.

It was widespread dissatisfaction with Chopin's "inadequate" accompaniments that led in the 19th and early 20th century to several re-orchestrations, which were performed as recently as the 1950s. While now generally performed as written, Chopin's orchestration is still considered by most musicians as primitive: a few sticks upon which to hang the composer's brilliant keyboard writing.

"I still remember the time when some great Polish conductors made cuts in the opening tutti," Zimerman says, referring to the pieces' orchestral introductions. "I played with one of the greatest, and he said, 'You know, that's such an ugly tutti, we'll cross it out and we won't play the whole thing.' "

The pianist obviously feels differently about Chopin's abilities.

"He was only 19 and he was inexperienced," Zimerman says. "But he knew what he was doing. The orchestral parts of the concertos are not an 'accompaniment' -- they are lots of music, and they deserve respect."

That's not what they usually receive from orchestras, particularly those in the United States and Western Europe, which have become imprisoned by their own routines.

"The music industry tells orchestras to give public performances every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and to rehearse the program for a few hours Tuesday and Wednesday," Zimerman says. "Concertos almost always receive the least rehearsal time -- Chopin's most of all."

Almost all of the pianist's available time -- and money -- in the last two years has been spent trying to right that wrong.

No language barrier

When he decided to form an orchestra, he decided that the musicians should all be Polish -- and not for reasons of ethnicity. "It's just much easier when you can all communicate in the same language," Zimerman says.

And Zimerman and his band of 60 players have been doing a lot of communicating. The first rehearsal began at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 a.m. the next day. Every day since, the musicians have spent from two to four hours -- and sometimes more -- rehearsing.

"We've left no detail unexamined," Zimerman says. "We've analyzed every chord and every phrase. We've had to think about every bowing -- because Chopin knew nothing about string instruments. Each player has had to think about how to attack the strings, how much or how little vibrato to use."

Another consideration was the instruments themselves. Zimerman's musicians are young -- the mean age of the players is in the mid-20s -- and not rich. Many of them, particularly the string players, did not own good instruments. So for the players who needed them, he went out and rented instruments -- instruments, such as Strads and Guarneris, that usually sell for at least a quarter-million dollars.

"I wanted instruments that would be appropriate to the ideal of sound in my head -- and that meant the best," he says.

Such decisions did not go unnoticed by the tour's five sponsors -- four of whom dropped out before the tour even started because of skyrocketing costs.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.