MEMBERS of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra were astonished not long ago to arrive for a rehearsal and find their new Hamburg Steinway dismantled in a corner of the stage. There amid the pieces was Krystian Zimerman, the pianist who would be playing a Brahms concerto with them, filing away at the hammers and recalibrating the action to give the mellow instrument the more brilliant tone needed for Brahms. It was an unusual act for a performer, but one typical of the uncompromising attitude that has brought Mr. Zimerman from obscurity in southern Poland a few years ago to the world's leading concert stages today. And it's an attitude that has given the 31-year-old pianist a kind of freedom, amid the strenuous demands of a career at the top, that many piano virtuosos never attain.
A winner at age 19 of Warsaw's prestigious Chopin Competition, Zimerman has resisted the temptations of exploitative superstardom for the past 12 years in order to burnish and refine his musical gift on his own terms.
Zimerman refuses, for example, to give press interviews in Europe, where his career is already ``too big,'' as he puts it. He also limits his concert engagements to eight months a year so he can devote time to learning new pieces and to being at home with his wife and infant daughter. And though he is sought after as a recording artist, Zimerman visits the studio only infrequently, preferring to play for people rather than microphones.
His unorthodox priorities certainly haven't hurt, and indeed may have helped, his career. After all, Zimerman performs with top conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Ricardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, and Seiji Ozawa. Tonight he'll play Brahms at the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl, with Edo de Waart conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And he's heading for Japan soon, for his sixth concert tour there in 12 years.
``I see from the families of colleagues that very often the most difficult thing [about life as a concert artist] is to keep the family going,'' he said in a Monitor interview several weeks ago, between programs with the Cleveland Orchestra. For 10 years, Zimerman traveled the music circuit with his wife, Maya.
Since the arrival of their daughter, Claudia, last August, however, ``the traveling is temporarily sort of difficult,'' he explains in fluent, lightly accented English. That's why he rearranged his United States engagements last season in Boston, New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Cleveland - concerts booked two years earlier, before his wife was expecting - so that between stops he could rejoin his family at their apartment outside Basel, Switzerland.
Critics often use superlatives when describing Zimerman - phrases like ``deeply accomplished'' (Los Angeles Times); ``a formidable technique'' (New York Times); ``probably the most generously gifted of all the young pianists'' (Boston Globe). Though they may quarrel with some nuance of his interpretation, they never accuse him of sacrificing a composer's intention in order to stamp a piece with his own imprint, as many young musicians do.
Zimerman credits his high level of achievement to his family's attention and to a ``fabulous teacher.'' His father, who was a professional musician himself before he switched to the building business, introduced young Krystian to the piano at age 5. Two years later, he was taking lessons from Andrezei Jaschinski, with whom he studied right through his conservatory training in Katowice, Poland.
Between the demands of school and homework, Zimerman recalls, he was occupied from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. ``They kept us always under a sort of guidance - where here there's a kind of false freedom. Children don't want this kind of freedom. A human being is searching for organization - organized goals, attitudes, inspiration.
``I had this tremendous luck to have Mr. Jaschinski, who was a kind of second father to me,'' Zimerman continues. ``He would bring me books, or he would say there's an interesting movie you have to see now, or theater, or concert. I always had something waiting for me instead of having to wonder what to do with my free time.''
As a young student, Zimerman was steeped in Polish musical tradition. At age 8, he was already learning mazurkas by Chopin, a composer some say he resembles physically. As a young adult, he became acquainted with the great Polish-born virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein, and to this day he keeps as treasures the cuff links Rubinstein bequeathed to him.
Zimerman has recorded the works of Karol Szymanowski, whom he considers the second-greatest Polish composer after Chopin. He also plans to debut a new concerto by Witold Lutoslawski in New York in November 1988.
But despite an interest in contemporary and classical composers, ``the most valuable part of the piano repertoire is focused somewhere in the romantics,'' he notes. ``The piano was the major instrument at that time.''
Zimerman sees the climate of opportunity for young musicians improving precisely because winning a competition is less important today than it once was. He points to the up-and-coming young Greek pianist Dimitris Sgouros and a few others who have risen without competitions.
``You have to be very lucky to win a competition. The jury is sometimes tired; sometimes you have a bad piano.... And I have to say this is wrong. The thing is: The first-prize winner gets a chance. The second, who may be a wonderful musician, doesn't.''