KZ concert report

We don’t do reviews here at Vftp (part of my “glass houses” policy), but I thought the odd concert report might allowable.

Most musicians and music lovers have their own version of “the list.” That is the list of performers you want to catch before they or you die. I’ve done okay on some counts, managing to catch many of my favorite jazz masters just in time, and am still bummed that I never heard Lenny or Karajan live, even though they lived into my early twenties.  The list is smaller than ever, partly because I’ve been busy working my way through it and partly because too many of today’s performers aren’t list-worthy (sorry guys). When I die, I hope I will have achieved list-worthiness in the eyes of some perceptive young listeners….

Anyway, one musician who is still alive and who has been on that list ever since I heard his recording of the Brahms 1st Piano Concerto with Lenny as a young man is Krystian Zimerman. Last night at the Bridgewater finally had the chance to hear him in person.

And glad I am to have done so. It was a fantastic program- Bach C minor Partita, the last Beethoven Sonata (op 111), four late Brahms pieces and the Variations on a Polish Theme op 10 of Szymanowski. Zimerman has already attracted the notice of the press for changing piano keyboards/actions between the Bach and the Beethoven. I hadn’t been warned, and it made quite a surprise, but the difference was instantly noticeable. It was as good as changing pianos, and brought out a whole new range of colors.

And this brings me to my point- I came away from the evening feeling like this was really the first time I’ve heard KZ play, which of course it was. Yes, the Bridgewater Hall is an acoustically perfect space for solo piano music, but I really felt like I was hearing a degree of warmth, pliability and expressive range that the recordings don’t begin to do justice to.

I’ll leave a review to the reviewers, but I did think the Bach was spectacular- overflowing with detail, direction, intensity and rhythmic energy, and the Beethoven was quite a radical vision of the piece- completely unsentimental until the final pages, when he finally added a dimension of nuance, color and flexibility he’s seemed to keep in reserve up to that point (apparently, this was his first live performance of op 111 !). The Szmanowsky seems to be a young genius’s catalogue of everything that is possible on the piano, played with a degree of bravura in rather stark contrast to Zimmerman’s more austere approach to Bach and Beethoven. Anyway, if you can get tickets to London or Basingstoke, buy them, even if the sound won’t be as good as in Manchester.

My friends at the Bridgewater kindly smuggled (escorted is a more distinguish word, but less fun) me backstage for a brief chat and a look at the inner workings of a KZ world tour. KZ travels in a non-descript looking white van which he himself drives (along with his piano technician) and his highly customized Steinway. Aside from touring with multiple keyboards each fine-tune for the specific demands of certain repertoire, the piano has also been given titanium legs, which he tells me makes a huge difference to the sound.

Now, I can imagine a skeptic questioning whether KZ can really tell the difference between titanium and wood legs, or between all those carefully calibrated keyboards (I get the same reactions when I explain the magic of my million dollar end pin). Well, of course, we had a chance to sample the difference in the keyboards from the audience, but Zimmerman has gone much further.

On his laptop is a program he’s written (he’s an expert computer programmer) that performs a detailed spectrum analysis of the exact pitch and overtone content of each string on the piano, so that he can see exactly how each adjustment affects the sound. More importantly, he can use this software to map how he wants the piano to sound, so that his technician can prepare the piano exactly as he wants it for the repertoire in question.

In fact, it is possible using the software to map ideal tonal setups on the piano for each piece on a program- you can see just how bright or dark this or that range of the piano needs to be for best results in Brahms or Szymanowski, then try to find the best balance of the needs of the two pieces. When those needs are too different, as in the Bach or Beethoven, you simply replace one action with another, each perfectly calibrated (or as nearly perfectly calibrated as possible, the process is never-ending). (House piano technicians are not allowed to touch KZ’s piano and rightly so, at best it would be like having a McLaren technician tweak your Formula One Ferrari, but more likely it would be like having your local mechanic, good as he is, tweak a Formula One Ferrari…)

Most interactions between music and technology end up with the music being maimed- deranged engineers think they can improve the lousy acoustics of an auditorium by micing the lousy sound of that auditorium and piping it through speakers over the audience’s head, or greedy producers think they can ditch all those pesky musicians and use a magical computer simulation for their Broadway show. Here is an example of cutting edge technology being used in service of live, unaltered, un-edited, un-maimed acoustic music.

I found it really inspiring- the guy has nothing left to prove to audiences or the establishment, and here he is, lugging his own piano all over Europe, spending thousands of hours doing research and developing technology, just to get that little bit closer to the ideal sound. The dreary economic realities of classical music have got us all so used to constant compromise that it is almost novel to see someone at work who seems to be purging his professional life of compromise. How many times have I been working on an adjustment of a cello when the luthier sort of announces- “well that’s as good as that instrument can sound.” No, that’s only as good as you can get it to sound…. We should never give up, even if we don’t want our kit to become a distraction. 

Of course, these days there seems to be such an aversion to this purely idealistic approach to making music that people expect someone who is “uncompromising” to be difficult. In this case, on the basis of our brief chat, I can report that nothing could be further from the truth- KZ was gracious, low key, completely without ego or artifice. His only concern after the concert was to get some time on the piano on the morning to make some fresh adjustments. He was really generous with his time, meeting some well-wishers and young piano students and cheerfully signing some autographs.

So, all my American friends- be sure to catch him on future US tours. Oh wait… What’s this? He’s announced he’s not doing anymore American tours because of the US policies on torture? Sorry guys, I suppose there is a musician of principle out there after all.

Think about it- we can get quite pious faulting those who continued to perform in Germany too long after 1933, or who were working in South Africa at the height of Apartheid, but what about America today? Of course Hitler was worse, of course Apartheid was worse- our transgressions are just an unprovoked war and a bit of torture and rendition on the side. A little torture is nothing to cancel a concert over, is it?

Here’s are some KZ thoughts from Jessica Duchen, and a preview from the Independent by Michael Church.  Jessica’s early blog post on KZ is here, which includes link to her KZ feature in Pianist in which he discusses his reasons for his difficult decision to stop performing in America in spite of his affection for US audiences.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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4 comments on “KZ concert report”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    By the way, I want to completely disclaim any intention of presenting carefully vetted exact technical details of KZs pianos or technologies- these are just personal remarks reflecting a number of informal, low-key conversations back stage (ie- shooting the shit). If I’ve got anything wrong, appologies to readers and KZ.


  2. Composerbastard

    This is mind blowing. I wonder how he takes into account environmental conditions as he prepares the piano for performance – e.g. humidity and temp changes as the audience and lights are added to the mix after he has “set” if for a performance that night. e.g. the environmental dynamics that occur after he has “tuned” things for the evening?

    And how does he measure each string individually?? One thing is to use an omnidirectional or shotgun mic, but positioning is so important that to get it right would be extremely difficult.

  3. Stephen N

    He was fantastic in Basingstoke – a completely different approach to piano, audience and music compared to the two concerts I’ve caught in UK in the last four or five years.

    I heard him do Op111 in Basingstoke some years ago and this time was a more relaxed and measured (emotionally) interpretation but had a much deeper and longer lasting impression.

    Awesome stuff – he even started the Beethoven by joking with the audience about teh keyboard change!

    He’s certainly a class act – I’m looking forward to hearing him in RFH tonight.

    By the by there are still tickets avaialbe for London, and Basingtsoke was perhaps only two thirds full – Sir John Eliot Gardiner was in the audience which I think says a lot, I wonder what he made of the Bach

  4. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » The violin may be sharp, but the piano is flat…

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