Liszt Piano Works
It is to be expected that an artist who has made one of the outstanding recordings of the Liszt concertos (DG, 11/88) should also give us one of the finest ever B minor Sonatas. Whether you think it is the finest ever may depend on your priorities (and on whether you think it is sensible to venture such opinions). What can surely be said is that Zimerman brings to bear a combination of ardour, forcefulness, drive and sheer technical grasp which are tremendously exciting and for which I can think of no direct rival. But it also seems to me that others have achieved a subtler pacing and shading of climaxes, or a more philosophical inwardness, that make their readings equally, if not more rewarding. Pollini, also on DG, is perhaps the most nearly comparable in approach, but he is less overtly rhetorical from moment to moment and more concerned with long arcs of dramatic tension.
DG have given Zimerman a very bright, close sound-image, as the very opening demonstrates. The staccato octaves hook into you, and the release of tension at the first fortissimo has an almost startling vehemence. For me Zimerman's dramatic timing in these opening pages is wonderful, and the sternness which regulates the emotional pressure is close to my ideal for the whole of the long allegro energico. This is playing in the grand manner, and if you automatically dislike 'conventional' agogic hesitations and surges you will probably resist many of Zimerman's initiatives; if, however, you dislike such things only when the technical and temperamental backup is defective you will surely relish their application here.
It is with the Andante sostenuto slow movement (from 12'25'') that the inspiration wavers a little—not so much in the lyrical playing (though I do regret the self-conscious middle-voice projection which leads into this section from 12'00'') as in the building of the central climax. This comes to the boil too soon to clinch the crucial moment at 15'14'' (Molto sostenuto on page 21 of the Peters edition), and as I have hinted it is the overall profile of climaxes which is the Achilles heel of the performance, for try as he might Zimerman cannot overtop his magnificent playing in the early stages. Blame the music if you like, but others have shown that a more convincing overall trajectory is possible. Richter and Brendel are two such (both on Philips). Brendel's structural and poetic insights offer rich compensation for some highly idiosyncratic pianism, whilst for atmosphere and abandon Richter (live from Budapest in 1958) is without peer—his, despite miserable recording quality, is the version to which I find myself most frequently returning.
Again, a great performance of ''Funerailles'' such as Richter's (on the same CD as the Sonata, which also includes a staggering Hungarian Fantasia) tends to highlight what is lacking with Zimerman. The younger man is curiously clinical with the opening page and then pumps up climaxes prematurely; then the central section emerges as a block-like episode rather than an integrated, irresistible accumulation. Still, the stronger memories from the rest of Zimerman's recital are of the magical evaporation at the end of Nuages gris, the passionate igniting towards the highpoint of La notte (a late reworking of ''Il pensiero'' from the second volume of Annees de pelerinage) and the subtle tonal shadings and high rhetorical charge of La lugubre gondola II.
I have slightly mixed feelings about the recording quality. It certainly does not lack impact, but sitting so close to such vividly projected playing can be tiring in the long run. The instrument itself is superb, only misbehaving slightly at the release of the climactic chord of the Sonata (26'57'').'