Christian Zacharias

The first time I heard Christian Zacharias, I was amazed. It was about ten years ago, and he was playing a Mozart concerto with the New York Philharmonic (I believe). The playing was so good as to be . . . perfect. I made it a point to hear Zacharias as often as I could.

Let me tell another story—about a friend of mine, who is a pianist. He was in the car one day and turned on the radio. A Beethoven piano concerto was playing. The soloist was superb, and my friend could not identify him, or even really guess at his identity. My friend arrived at his destination and sat in his car, just so he could know. It was Zacharias.

I have heard Zacharias less than perfect, less than superb, even. We all have good days and less glorious ones. Last Thursday night was a glorious occasion for Christian Zacharias, and his audience.

Zacharias, a German pianist, was the soloist with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. He played a Beethoven concerto, that in C major. Also on the program was a new work, by Jessie Montgomery, which I will address elsewhere.

When he first played, Zacharias’s accents were arguable. But they were certainly defensible, and certainly incisive. As the first movement unfolded, Zacharias was elegant and smart. His passagework was easy. Also, it was musical, not mere filler. Furthermore, Zacharias introduced some spookiness into this music (and so close to Halloween).

Let me pause for a story—an old joke. A family lives by the railroad tracks. Every evening, while they are at dinner, a train comes through and blows its whistle. This happens at 6:07. The family has long been oblivious to it.

One evening, at 6:07, the train did not come. The father jerked his head up and said, “What the hell was that?”

Well, I was sitting in Carnegie Hall, listening to the concerto, when I said, “What the . . .?” Zacharias was playing a cadenza I was not familiar with. I sat up and paid attention. (Extra attention.)

In the second movement, Largo, Zacharias showed us some pure singing. He also found some momentum in the music, which is important: Often, players get bogged down in this movement. Or rather, they bog it down. Zacharias demonstrated some beautiful lacy runs, and some beautiful long trilling. The playing was a marvelous combination of technique and taste.

Beethoven ends his second movement in warm A flat, and he begins his third, the Rondo, in bright C. This breaks the spell of the second movement, and brilliantly.

In the Rondo, Zacharias was brilliant. He was all character and taste (and technique, of course). He was alternately lithe and explosive, just like the music. I, who can pick on anything, cannot pick on Zacharias, not here.

All through the concerto, he was well-nigh perfect, and I’m not sure you need the “well-nigh.” Also, he is a great pianist, whether among the big names or not.

I would like to close with a word on the work itself—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15. As you may recall, it is the second piano concerto he wrote; we call it “No. 1” because it was published first. It is many people’s favorite Beethoven piano concerto. I understand this very well. I consider it a cousin—a younger cousin—of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K. 503, a towering masterpiece.

Have I heard Zacharias in it? I don’t know—I can’t remember—but I’d like to.

A new initiative for discerning readers—and our close friends. Join The New Criterion’s Supporters Circle.