Impressive Polish pianist - and chamber music at the White House

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Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw before his 20th birthday, in 1975. I know his work from several DG recordings of Mozart and Chopin. Excellent as they are, however, the recordings give no real indication of the impact Mr. Zimerman makes in recital.

A recent Carnegie Hall program - he's played in the States before - included the Brahms Third Sonata, four Szymanowski mazurkas, and the Chopin Third Sonata. A week later he performed the Liszt Concerto No. 2 in A major with the New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta's baton.

Mr. Zimerman is not a large man. He does not elicit from his instrument a particularly large tone. But from the moderately loud to the very quietest, his subtlety in the exploration of dynamic and coloristic variety is exceptional. He also knows how to compensate for a lack of thundering fortissimo tones.

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Were his way with colors and nuance his only strong points, Mr. Zimerman would be unusual in this artistically bland and rather loud day and age. He plays with a searching insight far beyond his years.

He is fascinated with the pieces he plays, and he makes his listener fascinated as well. He has deeply and extensively pondered the composer's intentions, the specific tools the composer used for the piece at hand, and - perhaps most important but generally most elusive - he understands that each composer had his own language and color, and he strives constantly to give the listener the fullest possible sense of that color.

Mr. Zimerman's Brahms was particularly felicitous, since the composer's sonatas tend to elude so many pianists. Szymanowski is not a composer who pops up on many programs; Mr. Zimerman's deep-felt performances of the mazurkas whetted the appetite for more. And the Chopin was at once elegant, exciting, and heartrending. One is constantly aware of a unique musical sensibility at work.

Mr. Zimerman made his recital an evocative and thrilling event, full of spontaneity and that sort of reverence that exhilarates rather than stultifies. He approached the Liszt concerto not as a digital showcase but as a haunting piece of music to be savored and explored - now luxuriating in limpid beauty, now striding through militaristic fanfares, now probing the deepest emotions. He respects the much-maligned composer.

Mr. Mehta gave him robust support, and, at several key moments, matched Mr. Zimerman's contemplative mood handsomely. The Philharmonic seemed sparked by the pianist's style as well, and seemed to pick up its artistic clues from him. Pavarotti on TV

A few words are in order about the Pavarotti concert telecast on PBS last week. The favored tenor has been in the news because of his many cancellations (the Met, Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric, among others), and for being the victim of booing at La Scala.

At Avery Fisher Hall, the tenor was slightly off form in the opening arias from ''Rigoletto.'' As the evening progressed, however, his voice strengthened even as the audience's weakened. By program's end, the reception was no longer the delirious roar that greeted his opening moments, though the singing was markedly superior.

The Pavarotti charm is ever with us. The voice continues to lose presence and brilliance in the upper reaches. But in the scenes from ''Lucia di Lammermoor'' (the very music in which he was booed in La Scala), and the rousing Neapolitan encores, this was vintage Pavarotti. Less impressive were a rushed ''Flower Song ,'' from Bizet's ''Carmen'' (sung in French), and a somewhat rough ''Ah! Fuyez douce image,'' from Massenet's ''Manon'' (sung, inexplicably, in Italian).

Cynics will argue that Pavarotti is always able to sing on telecast concerts but not for less visible opera house evenings. Is he becoming the victim of his own superstar fame? Does he increasingly fear whether he can provide what audiences expect of him? Although he clearly gives his all in performance, does he worry that if that all is not enough, his audiences will be disappointed or even turn on him (savagely, as at La Scala)? The price of his superstar fame is high. Will it eventually cut into his abilities as one of the great singers of the day? At the White House

There are concert halls and there are concert halls. The most unusual one I've been in is the East Room of the White House - an imposing room possessed of wonderful acoustics.

At the ''Young Performers at the White House'' series that PBS tapes for later telecast, an esteemed, established artist performs and then introduces a young artist (often a protege) to perform as well. Last Wednesday, chamber music was the order of business, and this in itself was unusual.

Chamber music is traditionally the form of classical music that represents elitism in its fullest regalia - stuffy aficionados crammed into dark, tiny halls to hear small groups of players hunched over music stands as they peruse heady, hard-to-follow music. Or so the myth goes.

Ironically, chamber music was once the reason people gave parties - no one would have dreamed of leaving before a read-through of some piece of music. Nowadays, groups like the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Amadeus, the Cleveland, and others are packing houses nation- and worldwide.

But on PBS, chamber music has been curiously inconspicuous. An evening like this one, which will be seen during this week (PBS, simulcast in most areas, check local listings for premiere and repeats), with the President and Mrs. Reagan in attendance, cannot help advancing the image of the art form.

It helps, of course, that the senior group is the Juilliard Quartet, once the only all-American professional chamber group in the world. It helps, too, that the host for the program was famed violinist Itzhak Perlman. The group introduced was the Muir Quartet, named after the noted American naturalist John Muir, who settled in California, home also of the quartet that took his name.

Mr. Perlman noted it was fitting that music be played in a room that was finished while Haydn was still composing string quartets. The Juilliard played a movement from a Brahms quartet. The Muir - a vibrant, exciting group - offered a movement each from quartets by Ravel and Beethoven. Mr. Perlman joined Samuel Rhodes of the Juilliard and Bayla Keyes from the Muir for two movements of the Dvorak Terzetto, and the two quartets together concluded the program with the last two movements of the Mendelssohn Octet.

It was deft, appealing musicmaking, in a splendid ambiance. And it focused important attention on chamber music and musicians, particularly when the President and the First Lady paid eloquent tribute to the players..

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