Profundity and Poetry in Zacharias’s Pianism

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann: Christian Zacharias (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 1.11.2016 (BJ)

Schubert – Piano Sonata in A minor D.537
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E minor Op.90; Piano Sonata in E major
Schumann – Davidsbündlertänze

Quite apart from his relatively recent development into an impressive conductor, Christian Zacharias has ranked for some four decades among the world’s most distinguished pianists. Armed with a highly proficient technique, he approaches the works he plays in a way that lays no stress on that quality, but rather seeks and finds what he has called “the essence of the music,” bringing to bear an intensity of nuance that is sensitive yet never eccentric, and remains always both visually and aurally unshowy.

It is only a pianist of such seriousness and integrity that could have chosen, for what I think was his first recording, so comparably unshowy a work as Schubert’s profoundly poetic G-major Sonata, fashioning a performance I reviewed with much admiration when it was first released. A different Schubert sonata made a welcome appearance to set this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital on its course.

The A-minor Piano Sonata was one of the first works in the genre that the barely 20-year-old composer completed. It deserves to be much better known—this, if memory serves, was only the second time I have heard it in live performance, after a first encounter at London’s Wigmore Hall more than 50 years ago. But in addition to its considerable charm and its precocious technical polish, it possesses a slow movement especially interesting in that, more than a decade later, Schubert reshaped its theme into the Allegretto finale of his next-to-last piano sonata, the great A-major D.959, completed just two months before his death at the age of 31.

Zacharias played the earlier Allegretto quasi Andantino in D.537 with neatly pointed rhythm, and his reading of the fast first and last movements was exhilarating and admirably lucid in texture and articulation. Then came Beethoven. The E-minor Sonata, Op.90, drew an interpretation that stressed rather its dramatic concentration than the more intimate lyricism that other pianists have found in this compact and powerful work: I have particularly enjoyed superb recordings of it, by Ignat Solzhenitsyn and the late, great Ivan Moravec, that take the second of the two movements at a more serene tempo.

In the performance of the E-major work that began Beethoven’s final group of three sonatas, however, I found absolutely nothing to complain about: this was magisterial playing, and again the lucidity of the texture was one of its most praiseworthy attributes. The inward poetry of the concluding variation movement served, moreover, as a neat transition to the world of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze after intermission, and particularly to the quieter and more intimate among its 18 short and widely varied movements.

There is plenty of dash about some of them, and Zacharias captured that quality vividly, but I thought his most compelling playing here was to be enjoyed in such music as the gently ruminative movement that comes just before the end. Up to that point, it was perhaps possible to feel that, on this evening, his playing might occasionally have benefitted from a little more mystery—a little more willingness, as it were, to explore half-lights—but this searching account of “Wie aus der Ferne” beautifully caught the magic that is characteristic of so much of Schumann’s strongly individualistic muse.

Bernard Jacobson

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