Zimerman has strokes of, quite simply, genius

CRITIC'S CORNER//Music

Music Review

April 10, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's hard to explain true, transcendent artistry, to identify its roots or define its parameters, but I think I know when I hear it. And I heard it more than once during the weekend-long Piano Celebration presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

The festival, crammed with performances and lectures, was created to give the 40th anniversary of the series, Baltimore's finest importer of classical music talent, an extra charge. The result could not have been more galvanic.

The artistic peaks came in two events, both of them historic, at least locally - the first two-hand recital in Baltimore by the almost legendary Leon Fleisher since the 1960s, when use of his right hand was hindered by focal dystonia; and the Baltimore debut of Krystian Zimerman, ranked by many among the world's greatest pianists for the past three decades.

If anyone wants to propose that Zimerman is actually the greatest pianist living today, you won't get any argument from me. Not after his concert Friday night, a revelation of interpretive imagination. Make that interpretive daring. No, genius. That's the only word for it.

The evidence came right at the start of his program, with Mozart's C major Sonata, K. 330. The way the Polish pianist toyed with harmonic resolutions in the score - he's quite a cadence-teaser, this guy - added immeasurable elements of tension, eloquence and, in the finale, refreshing wit.

In Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, which Zimerman dedicated to "all those in prison because someone wanted to be the law instead of obeying the law," he created a taut drama, underlined by chords of shattering tonal and expressive weight. The famous slow movement unfolded unsentimentally, but with keen poetic insight; the finale had explosive impact.

Zimerman's wonderfully personal approach to the music of Chopin yielded intense pleasure in the F minor Ballade, while his refined sense of coloration served him well in Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales. His sensational technique and communicative skills were put to equal tests in a mesmerizing account of the thorny Piano Sonata No. 2 by important 20th-century Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz.

Had the Piano Celebration gone no further than this, it would have been a memorable experience. Zimerman cannot come back soon enough.

Fleisher's appearance Saturday night also proved richly satisfying. With the help of Botox injections, he has been able in recent years to put his right hand back into some pianistic service - enough to enable him, as he did here, to deliver a noble, incisive, time-suspending performance of Schubert's Sonata in B-flat.

The warmth of tone and the sense of seasoned reflection behind every phrase yielded a revelatory performance of this expansive, valedictory work.

On the first half of his recital, Fleisher focused on counterpoint via pieces by Bach, the supreme master of the style, and a retro example by Stravinsky. The latter's spiky Serenade got an intense workout, while Bach's imposing Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue inspired remarkable clarity, vitality and expression.

A few smudges in a boldly outlined account of Bach's colorful Capriccio, subtitled "On the Departure of His Most Beloved Brother," proved insignificant. Transcriptions of "Sheep May Safely Graze" and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" were gracefully limned.

There may still be physical limitations on Fleisher's technique, but none on his musicality. He remains a source and force of pianistic wisdom.

On Saturday afternoon, the action shifted from Shriver Hall to the Baltimore Museum of Art auditorium, where Kit Armstrong, looking half his 14 years, gave an impressive demonstration of his current talent and a promising taste of his potential.

He applied a remarkable palette of tonal shadings to Ravel's Sonatine, making the music sing and surge. His recital also contained carefully considered Debussy Preludes and generalized, but engaging, performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.

Yesterday afternoon, back at Shriver, Fazil Say gave the penultimate Piano Celebration recital (last night's finale was devoted to jazz pianist McCoy Tyner).

A mechanical malfunction prevented Say from performing the main draw on the program, a duet version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, one part pre-recorded, one part live. He substituted Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, played full-throttle and sometimes very effectively.

He started with a big, gutsy performance of the Bach/Busoni Chaconne. His over-the-top, hardly flub-free version of Beethoven's Appassionata approached the level of jazz in its spontaneous phrasing and rhythmic impulsiveness. I'm sure it appalled some listeners, but I found it striking and exhilarating.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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