Polish piano legend conquers Bangkok stage with RBSO

The RBSO concert featuring piano soloist Krystian Zimerman. (Photo courtesy of RBSO)

As with all of the truly great pianists, touch is absolutely key when it comes to delivering their excelsior interpretations of the immortal classics. This was demonstrated recently in impeccable, consummate fashion by legendary Polish soloist Krystian Zimerman, who appeared at the Thailand Cultural Centre earlier this month to a sold-out auditorium.

The concert was generously supported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Zimerman performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.4 In G Major, a sublime masterwork which for many connoisseurs represents the very apex of the genre, perhaps even surpassing its mighty successor (the Emperor Concerto) in terms of its heavenly structure and divinely inspired thematic content. An extremely attentive Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra was conducted by regular visiting guest conductor Charles Olivieri-Munroe, who himself is particularly efficient at co-ordinating orchestra and soloist in such a repertoire.

This was Zimerman's second highly anticipated appearance with the RBSO. His first, as far back as 2015, was also Olivieri-Munroe's debut in Thailand, on which occasion they presented Brahms' Piano Concerto No.1, with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the second half. Many in the audience would have been aware of the pleasing reverse symmetry on this occasion in terms of programming, as the Beethoven concerto was neatly balanced after the interval by Brahms' Symphony No.4 In E Minor.

The concert opened with a strikingly original contemporary work of popular appeal entitled Revolutionary Étude VS Fantasie Impromptu, by young Slovenian film-music composer Anže Rozman. A big stylistic contrast with the Germanic nature of the programme as a whole, the relevant connecting theme here was the deft juxtaposition and development of two famous tunes from Chopin's solo piano music.

Zimerman first came to prominence at the age of 18 in 1975, when he won First Prize at the International Frédéric Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and so this most entertaining of curtain raisers, fast and furious in its playfully virtuosic orchestration, was most fitting in context. Interestingly, whilst the right-hand piano part of Chopin's original delivers much of the filigree semiquaver pyrotechnics, it was the collective left-hands of the string section players which were put through their paces in this exhilarating rendition. The woodwind, brass and percussion also played with great gusto and aplomb towards a rousing conclusion that almost blew the roof off -- bravo indeed!

And so to the billed highlight of the evening, "Zimerman Plays Beethoven". Those solitary, ever so delicate opening bars for solo piano were themselves so very revolutionary vis-à-vis concerto construction when they first emerged from Beethoven's ink quill pen in 1805, and Zimerman demonstrated in this brief opening just why he is still regarded -- after such a long and distinguished career -- as one of the instrument's very finest exponents active today. His feather-light touch combined with an absolute, masterful control reminded the audience that he transports his own keyboard around with him, so very particular and meticulous is he with the mechanics of a concert grand piano (setting himself apart from most piano supremos, he has an expert knowledge of and practical experience in piano building with Steinway & Sons in Hamburg). We were also reminded that the purest musical projection is not simply about decibel production, but is rather a matter of refined physical touch, combined with the essential personal qualities of charismatic communication and body language.

In 2020, Beethoven's 250th anniversary year, although all musical life was seriously compromised by Covid-19, Zimerman heroically recorded all five Beethoven concertos with a socially distanced London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle -- a set which has of course been received with the warmest critical acclaim. In this RBSO performance, as with that classic modern recording, the other side of Beethoven's dynamic spectrum was also fully explored, with Olivieri-Munroe encouraging full-bloodied fortissimos from the orchestra -- most notably and successfully in the dark and brooding central movement, andante con moto. Meanwhile, in the Rondo: Vivace finale, principal cellist Apichai Leamthong gave confident and sensitive support in his brief but important solo passages, while the viola section produced a wonderfully lush and warm tone for the gorgeous E-flat major bridge section.

After a spotless and thoroughly committed performance by all concerned, Zimerman then returned to treat the audience (and orchestra/conductor) to three equally captivating encores -- sinfonia and Rondeau/Capriccio from Bach's Partita No.2 In C Minor, and Brahms' Intermezzo In B-flat Minor. Simply exquisite pianoforte mastery.

Brahms' Symphony No.4 thus followed on most naturally after the interval, its uber-organic musical language and by turns wistful then explosive character interpreted most satisfyingly by Olivieri-Munroe. Having conducted the RBSO numerous times since that first 2015 visit, he has formed intimate and rewarding musical relationships with all sections and players of the orchestra. In a most pleasing symbiotic interaction, he knows exactly what they are capable of, and they know how to respond to his clear, authoritative direction.

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