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Originally published Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Pianist's pianist "King Krystian" doesn't "play" — it's for real

Krystian Zimerman is the greatest pianist you've never heard of, and probably greater than the ones you have. He plays at Seattle's Meany Hall on April 21 — a stop on what he says may be his final U.S. tour.

Special to The Seattle Times

Krystian Zimerman is the greatest pianist you've never heard of, and probably greater than the ones you have. Considered a spiritual heir to Arthur Rubinstein, the Polish expat — known to his European fans as "King Krystian the Glorious" — will be visiting Meany Hall for his third and possibly final visit to Seattle on Tuesday, April 21 (he was here previously in 2006 and 2003).

"This is my last concert tour of America for a very long time," he admits, during a long, impassioned phone conversation. Though he adores his American audience, the logistics of touring America with his Steinway have become impossible to bear, both psychologically and economically.

Considering how inseparable string players are from their famous instruments, the herculean effort Zimerman expends to bring along his trusted piano seems sensible. The question is why more pianists don't insist upon bringing their own.

"Because it's absolutely impossible to finance here," Zimerman declares flatly. "I've been doing this since 1989; I could probably own two houses in Florida with all the money I've spent on piano transport."

He shrugs it off. "This is what people deserve. The best of me. Even if I bring my piano, something can still go wrong, but at least I know I tried to do everything."

Like Martha Argerich, Zimerman is a bit of an enigma. A pianist's pianist, he's a musician for those who not only know how to listen to music, but create it as well.

"I don't like the expression 'to play' music," he says. "The most important thing is the credibility of the art. What is happening in a concert is really happening; it's a kind of life and death experience — very high risk. Craftsmanship is just a tool. On the stage, you forget everything you learn and just be the music."

His mentor and friend, Arthur Rubinstein, profoundly shaped Zimerman's approach to live performance. "I still remember discussions with Rubinstein, when I asked him, 'How can you play this program and then this one?' And he said, 'You know, we played differently than you do today. There were no microphones. We played the beginning, then improvised a bit and played some other parts, maybe the end. We played the most important thing in the music: the reason why the composer composed the music.'"

Zimerman says his program for Meany is "not a program like it used to be, with a leitmotif." The Beethoven Sonata No. 32 is there because he is "completely fascinated by it. Twenty-five years ago, my perception was that this was something written by a toothless old man shortly before dying. Eighteen months ago, I went back to the score. When I looked at the date of the composition, I realized he was exactly my age. This completely shocked me. And I suddenly started to play this piece like a man my age. And everything became clearer. Logical."

Of the Brahms's "Klavierstucke" and Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Theme," Zimerman admits the connection is "completely strange," adding by way of explanation that "Szymanowski started to work the variations when he was 16, a few years after Brahms died. Just a few years' difference, but a whole different era. To me, the beginning of the 20th century is the most interesting period in music."

Zimerman's words about Bach are terse: "Bach is always a challenge to play on the piano." He mutters something about his tuner not being able to come for this concert, and one gets the distinct impression that it is entirely possible the Partita No. 2 may not make it past Zimerman's notoriously exacting performance standards.

Sumi Hahn: sumi@bewodo.org

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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