For obvious reasons, Beethoven’s semiquincentennial celebrations were a virtual non-event but this piano concerto cycle, originally intended as the culmination of the London Symphony‘s Barbican celebration went ahead anyway, recorded in St Luke’s Church, socially distanced without an audience. 

Zimerman

I’d forgotten Krystian Zimerman’s incomplete cycle with Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic in1989 (incomplete because Bernstein died before they could record the first and second concertos and Zimerman subsequently recorded the first two directing from the keyboard). I was curious to compare both cycles. 

The LSO has always been London’s lean and mean ensemble (the Philharmonia, by contrast, the more aristocratic) but I was delighted to hear this repertoire performed by a ‘real’ orchestra strutting its stuff. There is such sprightly charm, confidence and sheer panache in the first tutti in the opening of the first concerto, without any appearing to succumb to the depredations of social distancing, although the strings do sound a touch scrawny at the opening of the Fourth Concerto for some reason. 

The truth is, Zimerman’s approach seems to have changed little in the more than 30 years since the earlier recording! Not surprisingly, the Vienna Philharmonic offers a more mellow sound and Bernstein’s tempi, especially in slow movements are more sedate. One reviewer thought “there is just the occasional exaggerated pause here, or elongated phrase there, which jars” in Zimerman’s playing – something I didn’t hear at all. In fact, one moment I particularly savoured was at 9’03’’ in the opening movement of the First Concerto when Zimerman pauses fractionally and invests a world of meaning into the ‘ping’ of a single note. For some reason it reminded of the way Maria Callas sang one word “ma!” in Una voce poco fa in her recording of The Barber of Seville

He and Rattle are at one throughout the first two concertos, suffused as they by the, albeit gorgeous, spirit of Mozart. The Third C Minor concerto could be viewed as the keyboard equivalent pf the Eroica Symphony: a fusillard of anger and incendiary drama indicating a dangerous new force on the musical scene, although I found Zimerman displayed more gruffness than wild fury. 

The Fourth, traditionally regarded as the most emotionally complex, is well nuanced, especially in the opening bars where it seems Rattle has made the orchestra’s first utterance the answer to a question posed by the soloist in the first bars. It’s a real challenge to find anything new to say about the Emperor, and here I don’t think either soloist or conductor quite tap into the imperiousness with which Klemperer and Barenboim (still in his early 20s) imbue the first movement. 

The LSO’s playing excels especially the winds. I’d have no hesitation in recommending this set. 

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Beethoven
Works: Complete Piano Concertos
Performers: Krystian Zimerman, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle
Label: DG 4839971 (3CD)