In 1978, an unknown, soft-spoken, 21-year-old Polish pianist appeared as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its newly appointed music director, Carlo Maria Giulini, in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The performances of Chopin's two piano concertos were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon. Krystian Zimerman's eloquence went far beyond his years, and a major career was launched.
In the '80s, Zimerman became Leonard Bernstein's favorite pianist, the conductor's choice to record the Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos. In 1992, the summer before Esa-Pekka Salonen became music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, he selected Zimerman to perform with the orchestra at the Salzburg Festival.
And now, Sunday, making his Disney Hall debut in a recital sponsored by the Philharmonic, Zimerman, who has become arguably the greatest pianist of his generation, made the surprise and shocking announcement from the stage that in protest of America's military policies overseas and particularly in Poland, he would no longer perform in the United States.
"Get your hands off my country," he said, soft-spoken but seething. He accused the U.S. military of wanting "to control the whole world," and made a reference to the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
About three dozen in the audience walked out, some shouting obscenities. Others remained but booed or yelled for him to shut up and play the piano. But many more cheered.
Zimerman (who doesn't allow photos taken of his performances) had been in a seemingly curious mood all evening. Normally the most exacting of pianists, he dispatched with strange impatience Bach's Partita No. 2 and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, in the first half of the program. He quickly walked to the piano and, instead of allowing the audience to quiet, he launched into each piece, not even waiting for latecomers to be seated before beginning Beethoven's most visionary sonata.
A program change from Brahms' late piano pieces, Opus 119, to the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Grazyna Bacewicz, announced over the loudspeakers after intermission, was the evening's next surprise. It was premiered in 1953 and is a strikingly modernist, moody and nationalist sonata for Soviet Poland. Again Zimerman went straight to the piano and immediately attacked the percussive first movement. The performance was riveting.
Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme," Zimerman more typically sat meditatively on his bench for a moment. Twice he leaned toward the keys and almost began to play, but then turned to the audience saying he hadn't planned to speak but decided he could not keep silent.
All along, Szymanowski's Variations had seemed an unusually lightweight end to a program that contained far-reaching Bach, Beethoven and (originally) Brahms. An early work by the only internationally famous Polish composer of the early 20th century, the Chopinesque Variations were written in 1904 when the composer was 22 and demonstrate none of the erotic mysticism of his mid-career compositions or the folk-inspired nationalism that made him known as the Polish Bartok.
Yet to hear Zimerman play anything in Disney was amazing. His Bach was richly nuanced and beautiful although pushed in the final Capriccio. The trills in his Beethoven had a bell-like shimmer that sounded like a newly discovered acoustic phenomenon.
But in the Szymanowski, Zimerman's meticulous tone, so luminous in the Introduction and theme, ultimately took second place to idealistic patriotic zeal. It's a good thing that he can look after his own pianos, because this one will probably want some doctoring after the treatment he gave it. There was no encore. Pianist, audience and piano were all spent. The cheers were deafening.
I hope Zimerman reconsiders his U.S. embargo. He has, of course, angered some Americans. But our country is precisely the place where politics is not outlawed from the concert hall. And I can't imagine a more compelling case to be made for Polish solidarity than his incomparable performance of these variations.