Léonie Sonning Awards 1994

Krystian Zimerman

The pianist Krystian Zimerman received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 250,000 at a concert held at 7.30pm on Friday, 27 May in Tivoli Concert Hall. The music prize was presented by the pianist, Associate Professor Amalie Malling

The programme

J.S. Bach Passacaglia BWV 582 (transcription for the piano by Krystian Zimerman)
Franz Schubert 7 easy Variations
Felix Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses, op. 54
Maurice Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales
Anton Webern Variations, op. 27
Karol Szymanowski Wariacje in B minor, op. 10

Encores: a mazurka by Zimerman’s teacher, Andrzej Jasinski, and a waltz by Chopin. 


The Léonie Sonning Music Prize is hereby awarded to Krystian Zimerman, who since his international breakthrough in 1975 has been one of his generation’s great pianists. With his fine sense of sound and form and incisive seriousness, Krystian Zimerman gets the classical piano repertoire to appear in a new light, and his persistent musical curiosity leads him constantly towards a new and unknown repertoire.

Krystian Zimerman in Denmark

Zimerman gave his first concert in Denmark in the mid 1980s – in Tivoli Concert Hall – but he was not the only outstanding pianist at the time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a whole string of pianists were lined up in the awareness of the Music Foundation, and in 1992 the executive committee finally decided that the time had come to award the prize once more to a pianist. The choice stood between Brendel, Schiff and Krystian Zimerman; after much listening and discussion a decision was finally reached, and on 19 April Krystian Zimerman was offered the Sonning Music Prize for 1994.

Zimerman’s reply was hand-written – with a green felt pen – on the letter in which the Music Foundation had offered him the prize: "Thank you, I receive the prize with joy and gratitude."

He has visited Denmark many times both before and after receiving the music prize – for the first time in 1984, when he played Brahms’ second piano concerto, then in 1989, when he played all the Beethoven piano concertos in Tivoli Concert Hall as a warm-up shortly before he was to record them with the Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein. Zimerman had a specially close relationship with Bernstein, and when the American conductor and winner of the Sonning Prize died after recording the three last Beethoven concertos, Zimerman himself conducted the orchestra for the recording of the first two.

The year before, at the Salzburg Festival, he had given the first performance of Lutoslawski’s piano concerto, which was dedicated to Zimerman.

In November 1983, he gave a concert in Tivoli Concert Hall with Okku Kamu, where he played Bartók’s first piano concerto. And it was always Zimerman himself who decided and decides on the repertoire. There is music he refuses to play and some he is happy to play, and it can be difficult to get the definitive concert programme out of him, but once he has decided on a programme, he sticks to it – if one does not accept his programme, he simply does not come.

Kristian Zimerman was only 37 when he received the Sonning Music Prize. The day before the concert he arrived with his grand piano and was put up at SAS Royal Hotel – without any time for either a press meeting or a reception at the City Hall. On the other hand, he spent much time a couple of days later on young Danish pianists – on Saturday, 28 May he held a master class for six Danish piano students at The Royal Danish Academy of Music.

The actual prize-giving concert was transmitted on both radio and TV, and just before the interval, Amalie Malling gave her speech to the prize-winner. She praised Zimerman’s work as a pianist as well as all his humanistic attitude to the world and to music, emphasising the good spiritual contact he is always able to create with his audience and his principle always to give himself plenty of time, i.e. only to give 12-15 concerts a year.

The next morning, Krystian Zimerman was out at The Royal Danish Academy of Music ready to give a master class from 10am onwards with six young piano students: Marie Rørbech, Christina Bjørkøe (who was especially praised by Zimerman), Nikolaj Koppel, Isabel Carlander, Francisca Skoogh and Jonas Kornbeck. Spread out over two days, they played music from Haydn to Bartók, and the master class was recorded by Danmarks Radio.

Selected Music by Krystian Zimerman

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

"[…] When we have mentioned the pianistic perfection, clarity and sense of timbre, Zimerman’s most striking characteristic is his distinctively warm seriousness, an uncompromising consistency and will to seek an emotional life in organic contact with form and structure. His sense of form and overview are exceptional and result in a dynamic experience [...]"

(Jan Jacoby, Politiken, 29 May 1994)

"[…] Among the other great experiences that evening were Mendelssohn’s ‘Variations sérieuses’, which Zimerman divested of all romantic, pathetic trappings, almost transforming them into both wild and mild modernism [...]"

(Thorkil Kjems, Jyllands-Posten, 29 May 1994)

"[…] But the key word is clarity – in the actual acoustic pattern, in sequence and in form. A clarity, it should be noted, that is not dry or impersonal but warm and present. Zimerman has his hot line to the audience, the music is transmitted without any subjective interference on the connection [...]"

 (Michael Bonnesen, Information, 30 May 1994)

"[…] Few people can emulate the weight, fullness and beauty of Zimerman’s playing. He can produce an incredible number of nuances and moods with sure clarity and authority, without resorting to superfluous affectation [...]"

(Eva Hvidt, Kristeligt Dagblad, 31 May 1994)