Those who admire the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman as I do will be excited by this new release, his first solo album in years. The hallmarks of his playing are here: a chiseled clarity of texture (nothing vague or mushy), subtle expression that always remains in scale and, above all, freshness.
These magnificent sonatas were Schubert’s last, both published posthumously, but they are full of joy (particularly No 20, in the open-hearted key of A Major). The fact that they represent Schubert’s final thoughts on the sonata is no reason to layer them with nostalgia. I find in some German pianists a tendency to sink into reverence at every opportunity, making Schubert sound mawkish and old-fashioned. Zimerman is entirely different: in the A Major’s second movement, he separates the notes of the accompaniment (his use of the sustaining pedal is delicate), and his clean rendition of the theme reveals this music to be uniquely quirky and timeless. At the same time, he conveys a feeling of trudging through the snow that links the piece with Winterreise.
In the first movement, his clarity of articulation emphasises the rays of sunshine, and his polished technique enables him to be appropriately light and playful in the Scherzo. Daniel Barenboim recorded a lovely, characterful performance of this sonata in 2014, more heavily pedaled than Zimerman’s and comparatively conventional.
The B Flat Sonata opens with a chorale-like theme, typically doubled at the sixth, which again leads some pianists into reverence – but this is not a hymn, and Zimerman takes pains to bring out the solo line, understanding that Schubert is all about melody. How naturally he then builds to the change to a minor key, and throughout the long first movement he charts gradations of light and shade with unerring subtlety.
His second movement is suitably inward – he tells us in his note that these recordings were made late at night – then his Scherzo bursts into life and light. I love how the finale feels its way forward, trying, but not always succeeding, to be carefree. Its prolonged first note registers as a question mark, to which Schubert provides a variety of answers. Throughout, Zimerman keeps the textures absolutely pristine and clear.
This is musicianship of the highest order: a ‘refined spontaneity’ that only comes with deep immersion in the music and a total identification with the composer on an emotional and intellectual level.