Stripping the Mona Lisa

Meet the Polish master pianist who doesn't want people to buy his records

A word of praise for Tom Service's rare interview with the mighty Polish pianist and eccentric Krystian Zimerman (Music Matters, 10 May, 12.15pm, Radio 3). The 51-year-old maestro sounded incredibly young - a mere ballboy at Wimbledon - and yet his chess-genius accent rendered everything that came out of his mouth immeasurably deep. Recalling his childhood in communist Zabrze, he said that "it was a time of no spare parts", like something straight from Conrad. Even after it became clear that he'd literally meant that there had been no spare parts for his piano anywhere in the city, forcing him to make his own out of bits of string, an air of profundity lingered.

Listening to an unkempt piano upsets him terribly ("I know where it's sick!"), but that's just one aspect of a lifelong tussle with the instrument. He has six pianos at home and any number of other keyboards he slides on to frames, frequently worrying about the sound that comes from all of them.

"Don't buy my records," he implored. "I only approve them under great stress." "Erm, there's a paradox here," countered Service, cautiously, "because you record everything."

It's been 18 years since Zimerman actually put out a solo album. He would like to release one, he says, but there are fundamental problems. Chiefly because he believes music is not in fact an audio experience. "OK. OK," said Service, bearing up brilliantly, "that sounds a little paradoxical." "I am against too much sound!" Zimerman went on. "Music is not sound! Music is organising people's emotions in time!" Modern recording equipment has, in his view, entirely destroyed the listening experience. To clean up a performance digitally is tantamount to stripping the Mona Lisa and finding she isn't wearing clean knickers. "OK . . ." whispered Service, trying to stay calm. "I am interested in her smile," clarified Zimerman, firmly. "Not her underwear."

Zimerman doesn't care for big concerts because the orchestra rarely digs the music sufficiently ("They hate rehearsals!") and neither does he believe in the notion of technique ("What technique? You have fingers. You put them on a keyboard and you make a sound!").

Solo concerts can be hellish, too. He comes up with three different sets of fingerings to any piece, sometimes more, depending on acoustics, his relentless self-searching, and whatever mood the piano happens to be in on the night ("I am prepared"). He also resents announcing what he wants to play in advance, listening to music anywhere other than in his car, and, most vehemently, the suggestion that Beethoven was deaf. He wasn't deaf. He just heard things on a higher frequency while biting on wooden sticks.

The good news is that Zimerman still occasionally plays in public and when he does he can rearrange your brain. He has, in fact, been practising one particular piece for 25 years because he loves it so much, and keeps finding new things in it, things that might even change the world. Oh yes, he intends to play it live, or even possibly record it one day, soon.

"Which piece?" tried Service, with the air of a decent man about to lean on his sword. "I can't tell you," said Zimerman, logically.

Pick of the week

The Chopin Experience
17-18 May, Radio 3
Hear Zimerman play as part of this Chopin splurge, which broadcasts the composer’s complete works.

A Taste of Honey
22 May, 11.30am, Radio 4
Recalling the impact of Shelagh Delaney’s iconic play, which is 50 years old this month.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel