The great, probing German pianist Christian Zacharias appears too infrequently with the Boston Symphony, and never as a recitalist in Boston; thus it was an immense pleasure to hear him at Tanglewood in Ozawa Hall on Thursday evening in a program of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and Schubert’s Moments musicaux, bookended by two early Beethoven sonatas.
I had known Zacharias through his extraordinary recordings of Scarlatti, which were, of the 50 or so CDs I listened to while preparing to record Scarlatti (on the harp), the absolute best. The things that made his Scarlatti so sensational—the sheer musicality, the beautiful tone and voicing, the intelligence, wit and poetry – were everywhere in evidence in this recital. His Mozart Concertos have won awards, and recently he has begun to conduct opera. Sunday he conducts the BSO in an all-Beethoven program (he will play Piano Concerto #2). Word has it that some BSO players think he conducts the best “Pastorale” ever.
The usual Tanglewood rain forced the doors to be shut, and the hall took on a salon-like atmosphere. Though Zacharias is playing this program on tour, he still made it sound quasi-improvisatory. Beginning and ending with early Beethoven was an unusual move, but he made everything he played seem fresh and unusually convincing.
Zacharias doesn’t move around a lot while playing, only occasionally looking down at the keyboard. Since 1992 he has also become widely admired as a conductor; indeed there were many times I felt I was hearing winds and other orchestral sounds during his playing, which was full of imagination and myriad colors. His first Beethoven sonata, No. 12 in A-flat Major, Opus 26 (1802), sometimes called the “Funeral March Sonata,” is famous for its third movement, Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe, which can be seen as a precursor to the slow movement in his “Eroica” Symphony, Op. 85, (1804). Zacharias played its first movement, a lovely Andante con Variazioni, exploring different textures and moods, particularly beautifully. Variation II is in A-flat minor (seven flats), a key Mozart avoided, known for its unusual difficulty. Beethoven thought enough of this Marcia funebre to recycle it as an orchestral march for a stage play in 1815, but transposed it to the more suitable (for orchestra) key of b minor. Another version for four voices and piano using an especially composed elegiac poem was played at Beethoven’s own funeral in 1827. Beethoven dedicated his Op. 26, to Prince Lichnowsky, as he had done with the Sonata, Op. 13 “Pathetique.”
Schubert’s beloved Moments musicaux received a ravishing performance. Composed over a five-year span, it was published as a collection in 1828. Zacharias has spoken in interviews of his admiration for Schubert who “knows what a sung line means,” and here he captured the mercurial moods of the six contrasting movements in his usual elegant, cantabile manner.
After intermission, Zacharias gave a somewhat introspective and deeply touching performance of another beloved piano masterwork, Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana, 8 Fantasies, Opus 16, which Schumann dedicated to Chopin. Schumann obviously felt a kinship with the fictional hypersensitive, emotionally troubled artist, Kreisler, a fictional character who appears in three works of E.T.A. Hoffman, and whose mania and depression Schumann recognized all too well. Schumann claimed to have composed this work in four days, which is apocryphal. Zacharias artfully etched the character of each of the eight moody character pieces, which he played with both grace and gravity. (One of the three films Zacharias made is about Schumann, and Schumann and Schubert appear on many of his recitals).
Another rarely played Beethoven sonata ended the program, Sonata No. 10 in G, Opus 14, No. 2, dedicated to Baroness Josepha von Braun. As a musician, Zacharias is known for his uncompromising individuality, and he brings out exactly that in his Beethoven. In a memorable performance, Zacharias brought out the sonata’s abundant wit and charm, and made a good case for it to be performed more often.
Zacharias’s playing and manner do not draw attention to him, but allow the listener to focus entirely on his refined, yet impassioned, music making. He clearly feels a kindred spirit with these three composers. As Zacharias told The New Yorker, he plays “music that goes right here (he pointed to his heart) and is almost a mirror of what you really are.” Zacharias’s music-making acts not only as self-revelation, but as a revelation of the music itself, however familiar. This was a highly nuanced, exquisitely played recital. Don’t miss him on Sunday with the BSO, even if you have to listen to the program on the radio.