Hong Kong has had the good fortune to present Krystian Zimerman several times in recent years, thanks to presenters at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Those who have been following Zimerman’s concert engagements will realize much of his activities today are focused in Europe and Asia. Flying in from Canada, in part for this occasion, Zimerman’s recital was one that I highly anticipated since his last appearance in Hong Kong in June 2010. Over 90% of the Culture Center seats were filled in this highlight recital of the 2012/13 concert season.

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth, the first half of the recital was devoted to the Estampes and six selected Préludes from Book 1. Estampes is a collection consisting of three works – “Pagodas”, “The Evening in Granada”, and the hugely famous “Gardens in the Rain”. These pieces belong to Debussy’s second stylistic period of piano writing that spanned roughly the two decades from 1893 to 1913, and chiefly represented by impressionistic techniques and picturesque ideas including free chromaticism, lyrical writing and fragmentary melodies. In Zimerman’s rendition, the imagery of these pieces emerged from the sounds of the black and white keys like reflections of morning light upon a lake, with feelings of freshness and comfort. He mastered the silvery octaves and delicate trill passages of “Pagodas”, while he brilliantly teased our senses with fragrances of Spanish landscapes and French gardens in the latter two pieces. There was modest exoticism in his approach to the habanera in “The Evening in Granada”.

Zimerman then traversed six of the popular Book 1 Préludes with a clarity of articulation that brought to mind the highly celebrated performances of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Like Michelangeli before him, Zimerman demonstrated his extraordinary skills of sensibility in touch and simplicity in lyricism in the second, seventh and twelve Préludes, and he effected a state of suspended animation in the sixth. A portrait of youth and elegance was painted by Zimerman with beautiful tone colors in the eighth Prelude, and he gave rise to a rapturous cathedral of gargantuan scale emerging out from the sea bed in no. 10.

The pairing of Debussy and Szymanowski in the second half confirmed the versatility of Zimerman, and his status as an artist of the highest order. In these early Szymanowski preludes, written in 1899–1900, our pianist demonstrated his fastidious frame of mind towards a canvas of sound colours in technical brevity. This required a sensitive instrument to respond, much as pieces of Chopin and Scriabin would require. The piano tonight lacked some of its lustre, but under Zimerman’s careful study of the instrument in advance, beautiful bel canto piano playing emerged almost effortlessly. Although Chopin and Scriabin influenced Szymanowski’s musical writings throughout his career, there was also a close and perhaps less familiar association between Rachmaninov and Szymanowski that could be heard in the latter’s Prelude no. 2 in D minor. This was a piece which Rachmaninov himself modeled in his own Étude-Tableau in C major, Op. 33 no. 2, written a decade later. Zimerman’s playing of the broad, sweeping melodic lines helped as an obvious clue in identifying this connection.

The final showpiece was Brahms’ Piano Sonata no. 2 in F sharp minor, a youthful piece that illustrated the close lineage of Brahms with Beethoven. This sonata is not considered in the “standard repertory” of Krystian Zimerman, and in terms of interpretation, it proved to be the most challenging piece for him of the evening. Despite inherent technical hurdles, he was able to evoke a fine dramatic progression of successive musical episodes and melodic phrases. The planned articulation of the rhythmic motif in the first movement can be compared with the rapturous quality of “The Sunken Cathedral” in the earlier Debussy piece, while the second movement (Andante) was a balance of tenderness and heated passion. The third movement (Scherzo) was temperamental, while the finale showed Zimerman investing his entire upper musculature and energy to an exciting close.

Throughout the concert, Zimerman elected to use scores to assist in each piece he performed; in particular with this Brahms sonata, the frequent page-turning did cause certain distractions to the overall concert experience. Nevertheless, I was pleased to witness Zimerman performing in fine form, particularly in the pieces of Debussy and Szymanowski.