The Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is among the most famous of Bach's great organ works. But transcribing it for and playing it upon the piano -- as Krystian Zimerman did on the second half of his Kennedy Center recital Wednesday -- is nothing less than an act of heroism.
While orchestral arrangements -- Leopold Stokowski's, most famously -- of this work abound, it is no accident that the Passacaglia in C Minor is not among the Bach organ pieces Ferruccio Busoni transcribed for piano. The work's insistent pedal line is complemented by an extraordinarily thick texture in the hands that is separated at far remove from the pedal. Matters become even more complicated (for the transcriber) in the work's conclusion -- a double fugue in which the complexities of voicing are more pronounced than in a single fugue.
It is a measure of Zimerman's brilliance as a pianist and as a musical thinker that he made his transcription so engrossing. There was much flying about of the left hand, as it was forced to accompany the right, while continuing to support the bass line. The pianist's imaginative pedaling created a grandeur of texture as he drove the piece to its glorious conclusion.
If slightly less impressive, the rest of the recital confirmed the 38-year-old Polish musician's position as one of our most accomplished and interesting pianists. Book I of Debussy's "Images" was played to near perfection. The blurring of colors in "Reflets d'eau" was rendered with the unerring hand of a great painter and "Homage a Rameau" sustained an unruffled mood of concentration. Only "Mouvement" suggested a moment of rhythmic instability -- Zimerman began a little too quickly -- but he quickly recovered for a full depiction of the bustling joy that was to inspire Stravinsky in "Petrouchka."
In Webern's "Variations," the same subtlety of phrasing, control of dynamic levels and differentiation of touch rendered this abstract, elusive piece with the sculptural precision of cut glass. Bach's tragic C Minor Partita, which concluded the first half, was performed with control that made it proceed to its grim destination with remorseless logic.
Zimerman is celebrated for his Chopin playing and his interpretation of the composer's B-flat Minor Sonata shed interesting light on this familiar work,allowing the listener to apprehend its vengefulness, lyricism and shadows with detachment and distance not possible in more conventionally visceral reading. One of the high points of the performance was the famous "Marche funebre," in which Zimerman's sparing use of the pedal made one hear the notes articulated as a march rather than as a nocturne. More imaginative touches came in the 90-second final movement, in which the delineation of inner voices suggested fragmentary cries and whispers and the final seconds a despairing glance downward before the final leap into the abyss.