• Krystian Zimerman speaks
    By Jim Lowe
     | October 20,2006

    Krystian Zimerman is one of the few pianists in the world who travels with his own piano.

    Krystian Zimerman is one of today's most famous pianists, but he's also a musician with a lot to say. He travels with his own piano – for musical rather than comfort reasons – and he has some new ideas about how Beethoven's "particular way of hearing" affected his composition, and hence the interpretation of his music.

    "His hearing changed throughout his whole life," Zimerman said. "Gradually, the deafness was getting stronger, and he developed a lot of tools in order to hear the piano. One of them was a small stick he would lean on the sound board of the instrument, and the other side, he would bite with his teeth. That allowed transmission of all kinds of frequencies directly to the brain, all these frequencies, we don't hear as human beings. … I think we should research more because it is a key to Beethoven interpretation."

    This was one of the many subjects the Polish pianist expressed strong opinions on in a last-minute interview from New York. He will be performing solo recitals on Tuesday at Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H., and Wednesday at Middlebury College's Center for the Arts in Middlebury.

    Born in Poland in 1956, Zimerman has been playing piano for more than 40 years. He began his concert career in 1975 after winning the Warsaw Chopin Competition as its youngest participant. His years since as a recitalist, concert performer and recording artist have featured tours around the world and performances at many prestigious festivals and with a number of the concert world's foremost orchestras and conductors.

    "Krystian Zimerman's approach to playing the piano has greatness written all over it. It has intensity, majesty, intimacy, daring and simplicity, and above all, insight," wrote The Times of London.

    Zimerman has recorded with some of the world's great conductors, concertos by Schumann and Grieg with Herbert von Karajan, Chopin with Carlo Maria Giulini, and Liszt with Seiji Ozawa. One of his most notable projects was a recording of the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Leonard Bernstein.

    Zimerman performs approximately 50 concerts a year with up to 12 dedicated to charity. He also participates in chamber music performances and conducts master classes. He teaches at Basle's Academy of Music in Switzerland, where he lives.

    During Wednesday's interview, Zimerman's expansive answers to some very general questions offered a glimpse into the soul of this most accomplished artist.

    Your piano training was entirely in Poland. Would you describe yourself as a Polish pianist?

    I was very lucky to live in a place that went back and forth from one country to another. We had a tremendous influence of the Polish culture, of course, because it is Poland. And we have a tremendous influence of the Russian culture, because Russia was for so many years influential in the Eastern Bloc. And, of course, with this came the music and the culture. It also has tremendous influence of the German culture from the past.

    Funny enough, my teacher was studying in Paris, so inhaled a lot of this French culture. For the Polish people, France was always the country they were looking up to, so the French influence was also tremendously important. We had at least four cultures which were clashing in this place – and I'm so lucky to have been exactly between all of this.

    So I feel right at home playing Russian music, Rachmaninoff concertos; I feel right at home, naturally, playing Chopin. I feel at home playing Brahms and Beethoven. And I feel at home playing Ravel and Debussy.

    Do you attempt to play in the composer's national style, or do you do it your own way?

    I'm going to Vienna in November to play Mozart there – and I want to play it well. I want to be good in their own music. Sometimes you see a pianist come in with his own culture. It's a safe way of doing it. You know, people can't touch you when you come with your culture, because you were born there, and you get a good review.

    What was, for me, more fascinating was to come to Paris, and stubbornly play recitals with Debussy, play Ravel concertos with (conductor) Pierre Boulez, and French chamber music, to prove myself to be at home there, to correspond with the people in their own country with their own language.

    That is one of the few good things about globalization. We start to profit from each other culturally.

    In your Vermont recitals, you are playing Classical works by Beethoven and Romantic music. How do you approach these differences?

    I think every music is, in a way, romantic – and don't think that I want to play Bach romantic. But (Bach) thought that his playing was romantic because there was no Rachmaninoff. So this man must have played himself out in this music.

    Can you imagine? Bach composed on Tuesday and Wednesday, they rehearsed Thursday, Saturday, on Sunday they performed, and on Monday he started the next cantata. It went on for years. Meanwhile, he lost children on Tuesday, and he brought it to the grave on Saturday. And he played again.

    Don't tell me this man didn't integrate this in his music, and that his music wasn't crying out. If you look at the cantatas, it's incredible the amount of emotions in them. I'm absolutely sure this man considered himself a romantic at this point. He didn't know that in a few hundred years, Schumann would come, Chopin would come. He's as romantic as any other composer, it's just that the tools have changed.

    If we start to adopt tools of Tchaikovsky and put them over Bach, this would sound awful. But the content of it is as romantic as a Tchaikovsky or a Chopin.

    It is unusual, these days, to bring your own piano with you. Why is it so important to you?

    The reason why I am carrying a piano is that I don't want everything to sound the same. I realize that (composers) were writing for their own pianos. Sometimes I look at the text of the music and ask, "Why is this guy writing a staccato here? Why is this forte? It doesn't make sense." And then, gradually, I was finding an instrument on tour, and I played it, and, "Oh my God, this sounds right. This sounds absolutely right on a piano like this."

    Fortunately, when I was in school, I got education in piano building. I realized that differences in the interpretations can be absolutely dramatic the moment you have tools which the composers had at home.

    I had this problem recently, playing a piano concerto of a modern composer. He was singing part of it for me, and said he would like it to sound like this. I looked at the score, and said, "That's not what you wrote." He said, "Yes, yes, yes, absolutely." I was practicing at home, remembering what he said, and I thought that doesn't make sense, he must have meant something else.

    And then I went to his house and I said, "I really don't understand what you are saying here in this one place, where you said about these 'wahs.'" He said, "Play it for me." I sat down at his piano, and his piano started to make these "wahs." I thought, OK. And he also has a Steinway. (Zimerman's piano is a Steinway). A particular Steinway has a particular effect – and now I understand his music.

    So this whole concept of my own instrument goes far beyond comfort and perfection of technique – I'm not searching for this at all.

    I find that if I have (the ideal) piano for the second movement of (Beethoven's) "Pathetique" (Sonata), I would like to bring it with me and show it to the people – and I would pay any money to do it.

    Doesn't traveling with your own piano cause all sorts of travel problems?

    I don't like to create a negative impression during this interview. But, due to the developments in politics in the last five years, I lost two pianos on the borders, because when people see a big black case, which smells of all kinds of chemicals, they go for it. They destroyed one piano completely; the other, they ripped out the keyboard. I lost another keyboard going to Japan in April, here in the JFK Airport in New York. So, it becomes really, really difficult.

    So, instead, you transport the innards from your piano in Europe to a shell in the States?

    I have parts of the instrument there, and I bring them over in the plane, and then I assemble it here. And then I put it into the instrument I know and have used for years here.

    I sort of bring this soul of what I want to do. It means also that I have to put two weeks between the last concert in Europe and the first concert in America.

    If you translate it into money, it costs me a tremendous amount of money every year. Of course, I don't translate it into money, because I really love New York. So I'm happy to have some days off here.

    But, that's the reality today – it's much more expensive than paying the piano transport over the Atlantic.

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