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Composers from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical:

Bach Glass Schubert
Beethoven Mahler Stravinsky
Copland Mozart Tilson Thomas
Corigliano Mutter Wagner
Debussy Pärt Zimerman
NEW! Huang

Additional composers and musicians

Krystian Zimerman

This is from Amazon.com's Rehearsal Space.

Does practice make perfect? It depends on whom you ask...
by David Patrick Stearns

Utopia gets surprisingly mixed reviews in classical music. Any number of artists and their admirers will tell you that their favorite performances are those that had no rehearsals. Then there are those who create a mystique around themselves by insisting on greenhouse circumstances that musicians are said to long for. The latest is Krystian Zimerman, the Polish pianist who is touring the world playing both Chopin concertos with an ensemble he hand-picked himself, the Polish Festival Orchestra, which offers him endless rehearsals and a chance to analyze nearly every chord. Even though the group has played engagements all over Europe and spent seven days making the Deutsche Grammophon recording that would take other forces seven hours, there are still daily rehearsals up to four hours long. "Five years ago, I wouldn't have dared this performance, because it's so far out of range of the kinds of performances we have on the market," he says.

Zimerman contends that the range of musical interpretations worldwide has become extremely narrow due to the copycat syndrome: Everybody decides who does it best and then does it the same way, and only huge amounts of rehearsal time can allow musicians to break out. But theories are one thing, execution another. Newsday critic Justin Davidson heard one of the first concerts on the U.S. leg of the tour and considered whether such extensive rehearsal time were the mark of amateurism: "The Polish Festival Orchestra played well enough, but no more.... I wonder whether ... Zimerman could really concentrate on what his hirelings were doing while he played. He may specifically have asked the horn and bassoon to come in with forceful urgency at certain spots, but they sure sounded late and loud to me."

One can only hope that lateness and loudness aren't typical. Though such problems are exactly the types that would be inevitably minimized in recording, the performance has a level of originality and inspiration that would make up for momentary lapses. The recording's hallmark is its drama: It's so pregnant with subtext that it seems like an opera without words, and often achieves this effect with an initially disquieting, but ultimately revelatory, elasticity of rhythm. Davidson's reaction suggests that the players are the victims of a self-absorption that can kill any sense of objectivity.

On top of that, Zimerman is surely spread thin, not just in juggling pianistic and conducting duties. Financially, the tour is certainly madness, as he is charging only his usual recital fee for a performance that includes the feeding, housing, and transportation of some 60 musicians. Because he's essentially the producer as well as the star soloist, he claims, he's sleeping only four hours a night. Not that he minds--he's dreading the tour's end: "I've never been so happy for such a long period of time. This is worth any money."

This isn't the first time that denizens of utopia have proved to be as fallible as mere mortals. Though Zimerman is allowed a bad night, those reaching for the sun seem to fall harder than most. Just because the late Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache demanded and got so much rehearsal from the Munich Philharmonic didn't guarantee stellar results: Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, for example, emerged with strange, gluey, Brucknerian tempos. The EMI release of Beethoven and Brahms performances vary wildly: His sense of long lines and discovery of hidden details give his rendition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 a cataclysmic impact. Even when the second-movement funeral march is slowed to a standstill, it becomes an expression of excruciating grief. But Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 is so lead-footed as to be a disaster. His Symphony No. 9 fares well until the finale, which is strangely sleepy and ragged. Similarly, Brahms's Symphony No. 2 receives a blazing performance, while the Symphony No. 1 lumbers.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner often has the luxury of concentrating on one piece of repertoire at a time--he runs his own orchestra--but at the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival, when he performed Beethoven's Leonore back to back with Kurt Masur's concert performances of Fidelio with the New York Philharmonic, Gardiner's lack of depth was sorely evident. In his classical efforts, Keith Jarrett concentrates intensively on one piece of repertoire at a time, but that seems not to have translated into successful Mozart concertos. Jarrett has often sought an interpretive purity that can give Bach the dignity of a Grecian statue, but he slights Mozart's worldliness in his latest volume of concertos and often sounds detached, a bit plain, and a tad slow. Anne-Sophie Mutter spent a year playing nothing but Beethoven violin sonatas, and the results have also divided critics; like Celibidache, Mutter hits and misses, veering between astonishingly precise insights and flourishes that sound artificial and affected. Could she, too, be a victim of interpretive monogamy?

"I'm not made that way," says Daniel Barenboim, the ubiquitous pianist and conductor who epitomizes the dangers of going too far in the opposite direction. "If you have a curious nature as I do and like many different things, you have to be careful that you don't spread yourself too thin, that your breadth of interest isn't so large that you can't concentrate on details. If you're of the nature of someone who concentrates on one thing, you have to be careful that you don't lose yourself in details. Both approaches have their pitfalls." And perhaps the ideal lies somewhere in between.

David Patrick Stearns is the classical music and theater critic for USA Today. He also freelances extensively for Opera News and BBC Magazine and is a musicology graduate from New York University. He lives in New York City and writes impossibly wacky plays under a pseudonym he will never reveal.
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