Before Krystian Zimerman walked onto the Irvine Barclay Theatre stage Friday night, an announcement was made that the Polish pianist had changed his program, substituting Chopin's Ballade No. 4 for one of the selections, Gershwin's Three Preludes. But "I didn't change the program," he announced, once seated at the piano. Homeland Security did.
You'd think he would have learned by now. A perfectionist who always brings along his own instrument, he had already had one Steinway destroyed by JFK security agents shortly after Sept. 11. It seems that the piano's glue can be mistaken for a compound found in bombs.
This time, they let the piano through, but not before holding it for five days just to make sure it was not a terrorist tool. That left Zimerman no time to practice the small and not terribly demanding Gershwin pieces. "I like to be prepared," he said.
Yes, he does. And yes, he was. In fact, prepared doesn't begin to describe his exquisite, eloquent, distinctive, witty, probing, shrewd, utterly satisfying, jaw-droppingly virtuosic playing.
Zimerman needs to be in control of every detail that affects a performance. He does copious amounts of research on the pieces he plays. He adjusts his piano himself, so he can get precisely the sound he wants. The Barclay's doors didn't open until a few minutes before 8, the pianist evidently insisting on last-minute adjustments to make his instrument suit the site.
He masters everything. But in actual performance, Zimerman creates the impression of spontaneity, of living every note as he plays it.
He began with Mozart's C-major Sonata, K. 330, overly familiar to nearly anyone who has taken piano lessons and a not uncommon concert warmup. He knows the ins and outs of Mozart style. He embellished as was the fashion in Mozart's day. But his embellishments weren't Mozart's, they were more Chopinesque, and I thought I even caught a hint of Bill Evans in the slow movement. And that slow movement was all heavenly melody heavily pedaled into gorgeous lyricism.
Ravel's "Valse Nobles et Sentimentales" was, I thought, neither noble nor sentimental, not even waltz-like. Rather, Zimerman caught a more essential flavor in Ravel, the sensuality that transcends both fire and ice. Not even a piercing hearing-aid squeal could discolor the pianist's transfixing tones.
Zimerman's Chopin goes deep. Besides the ballade, he played four Opus 24 mazurkas and the Second Sonata ("Funeral March"). His control of the keyboard, his ability to get any sound or timbre he wants from it, is a wonder. But he also approaches Chopin as one who has a story to tell, a story that can't be told in any other way.
There are no words to describe how he plays it. But when, during the gloomy funeral march, black clouds burst into something incomparably golden, the functional Barclay became a palace. Zimerman took the last movement so fast that you didn't so much hear it as feel it as a kind of mystical wind blowing across the back of your neck.
Perhaps the TSA screeners do know something, after all. Exactly what is in that piano?