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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major, D959 [38.54]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960 [43:12]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
rec. 2016, Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre Art ForÍt, Japan

It was back in 1994 that Deutsche Grammophon last released an exclusively solo album by the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, though the Grażyna Bacewicz Second Piano Sonata was included on a disc featuring the composer’s two piano quintets in 2011. We’ve had to wait a long time for this latest release. What prompted the pianist to return to the studio? In an interview with Jessica Duchen, contained in the booklet, the pianist explains that approaching the age of sixty led him to take stock, finally finding courage to set down his interpretations of these last two piano sonatas by Schubert. He even hints at the last three sonatas by Beethoven - that's a mouth-watering prospect, and we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed. He explains that he has been playing these sublime late works for thirty years and now the time is right to commit them to disc, adding “I worried that if I left them any longer, it would be too late”. 

Schubert composed his last two piano sonatas between Spring and Autumn of his final year. Zimerman elaborates in the interview that he approached these great works by first dispelling in his mind prevalent myths surrounding them. Rather than being aware that he was about to die, the composer was in relatively “good shape” at the time of writing them and, as proof, Zimerman cites the story of him walking thirty miles to put flowers on Haydn’s grave. When penning these final scores Schubert was upbeat and had a sense of looking to the future in this music. All of this informs Zimerman’s approach.

He has a wonderful sense of the structure and architecture of the works, and his pacing of them seems just right. These are expansive readings with care given to rests and pauses, allowing the music to unfold naturally and give the listener a sense of music being created on the wing. I’m so pleased that, like Richter, he values the importance of repeats. Any rubato feels unforced and subtle, in order, maybe, to highlight expression or create tension. Pedalling is restrained and judiciously applied, facilitating lightening of textures. I don't think I’ve ever heard the slow movements played as effectively. They never wallow in self-pity. The Scherzos that follow them, in each case, provide a blithe and gladsome contrast.

In 2007, Zimerman gave a benefit concert to raise funds for the Japanese city of Kashiwazaki, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 2007. In gratitude, the city’s mayor offered the pianist the Kashiwazaki City Performing Arts Centre, newly rebuilt after the devastation, as a recording venue for this project. Zimerman rates the acoustics very highly, “every note is clear, yet each is in a cushion of warm surroundings”. The recording was made using 32-bit technology. Added to that, the pianist replaced the Steinway’s keyboard, using one he has designed himself. The hammers strike a different point of the string, enhancing singing tone, revealing different overtones and facilitating a lighter action.

Zimerman’s wise choices and meticulous attention to detail have paid off with rich dividends. The warm, sympathetic acoustic of the recording venue fully captures the sonorous, richly burnished piano sound. Everything is clear and detailed, with sensitive pedalling unleashing an array of colour and tonal shading, in addition to some arresting sonorities. These are top drawer performances by any standards.

I’ve always greatly admired Zimerman’s playing, and treasure his recording of the Chopin Ballades as being the finest of these pieces I’ve ever heard. I hope that DG will reissue his Brahms Sonata recordings, which inexplicably had a very short shelf life on CD.

Stephen Greenbank



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