There is no recipe for the making of a great performance. The great performance at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday evening began 23 years ago when Krystian Zimerman, then 20 and already a pianist whose Chopin interpretations stood comparison with the best of this century, began thinking about a concert tour featuring both Chopin concertos and an orchestra whose members would be selected by Zimerman himself and rehearsed endlessly until every balance, every dynamic, every phrase, every note in every chord were analyzed, weighed and then integrated into a finished performance.
Zimerman began this epic, unprecedented project in 1998, working with 50 youthful Polish musicians individually and in small combinations in marathon rehearsals. Their appearance here is part of a tour of 39 cities in nine countries. The Polish Festival Orchestra (as it is called) will disband at tour's end this month, and Zimerman will remove the Chopin concertos from his active repertory for at least a few years, probably much longer.
With Zimerman conducting from the piano, Wednesday's performance of the concertos was a miracle of ardent and heartfelt revelations from soloist and orchestra. Orchestral introductions and interludes were huge, and so expansively and idiosyncratically phrased they remained poised throughout on a knife edge bordering hysteria; these were musicians playing with dangerous intensity, passionate fervor and wild exuberance. The tight acoustics of the Terrace Theater concentrated the sound in a way no large hall can, adding unforgettable yeast and bloom to the textures.
Zimerman's contribution to this glorious mix was a technique that cut through Chopin's technical difficulties with astonishing ease, leaving the pianist ample room to shape long lines and shade colors as only he can do. His supple voice leadings cresting on a wealth of lyrical counterpoint from the orchestra in the slow movements were rapturously sensual, and the climactic moments in the flanking movements emerged with leonine power from a dynamic range extending downward to exquisitely hushed pianissimos.
This was electrifying Chopin, Chopin as ecstatic and visionary, the Chopin of one's imagination and dreams.