Polish pianist and Polish concerto make a powerful pairing in Davies Hall

Krystian Zimerman
Contra Costa Times

San Francisco Symphony's beloved conductor laureate, Herbert Blomstedt, was back at the podium in Davies Hall Wednesday for the first night of his annual two-week run with the old gang, giving every evidence that the rapport between him and the orchestra is as strong as ever.

The rewards of their traversal of the Bruckner Symphony No. 2 in C minor in the evening's second half were rich and abundant. They couldn't hold the proverbial candle, however, to the fire and excitement generated by their concert-opening collaboration with Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, playing the concerto his countryman Witold Lutoslawski wrote expressly for him in 1987.

The reasons for this flat-out triumph were threefold: The concerto itself is fascinating; the superbly talented Zimerman gave it an astonishingly energetic and precise rendering; and the exquisitely calibrated support he got from Blomstedt and the orchestra was nothing short of exhilarating.

Often fragmented, elusive yet unremittingly riveting, the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto is four distinct movements played through without a break and stretching out over 27 minutes. It opens with excited, extended flutterings in flute and squawky clarinet, errant, seemingly random outbursts suddenly coalescing into a crystalline set of rapid staccato notes from the piano. Its second movement, a Presto, is an explosive one, marked by more brilliantly articulated batterings of single notes from the piano.

Moments of languid beauty drift through the third-movement Largo, more spacious, pensive and cerebral. I found myself marveling, in the moments when Zimerman was slowly caressing a single key at a time with the orchestra poised in utter stillness, at how hauntingly effective the technique was. The fourth movement unleashed the most frenetic and ferocious partnering between piano and various orchestral elements, a lot of darting and impish scattering about that put me in mind of a Tom and Jerry cartoon chase, building to a near terrifying intensity with Zimerman skittering all over the keyboard until a marvelous downward slide in strings brought it to an emphatic close.

This was only my second hearing of the Lutoslawski, and many of its mysteries may remain to be revealed to me. But I found it utterly absorbing - you don't always know where it's going, but it sure seems obvious after you get there that you have arrived.

The Bruckner, by contrast, was almost 70 minutes long, full of songful soulfulness in its outer movements and shot through with melodies and thematic fragments that were continually reintroduced and reworked. That kind of architectural familiarity was a welcome thing for much of the symphony, but had exhausted its welcome by the overlong Finale, where a slow-to-build climax of the same outburst of chords lost its wow power by what seemed like the fifth iteration. A grateful nod, however, goes to the chorus of French horns, especially in the Adagio, where they were appropriately full-throated, foggy, misty and beautiful.