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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor Op.15 (1854-58) [51.21]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
rec. Berlin, September 2003 and December 2004
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 6021 [51.21]
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Both Rattle and Zimerman are revisiting the D minor Concerto. The conductor presided over a recording with Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI 556583-2 with the City of Birmingham Symphony, 1998) and Zimerman reprises his much earlier 1984 recording in Vienna with Bernstein, a recording he here explicitly condemns for poor acoustics and for the inferior piano he was forced to use after the original choice failed to arrive in time: "good for Mozart but not for Brahms." In an over-stocked market one may argue redundancy for this new disc, even given such big names but as Zimerman notes, his last recording was twenty years ago and the "single moment" of a recording is only that – a single moment. He also admits to having listened to over eighty different recordings of the work – about 75 more than any critic would dream of listening to - but then Zimerman is highly unusual in his perceptive appreciation of recordings, especially older recordings, and the nature of transfer philosophies. In that respect he may well be unique amongst contemporary executants.

Structurally speaking this is a relatively broad reading. The first movement is not as slow as the Gilels-Jochum but it is slower than the very fallible Rubinstein-Mehta and nearly two minutes slower than the powerful and much earlier Rubinstein-Reiner. Similarly at 23.27 it sounds leisurely next to Serkin/Szell (21.08), Curzon – with Jorda (21.11) or Szell (22.15) - much less Backhaus/Boult (19.10). We should ignore the live 1935 Horowitz/Toscanini (17.04) as an aberration. The consensus is interesting inasmuch it gives one an idea of the greater drive imparted by some partnerships but the salient feature is the question of tempo relationships. Here my concerns centre principally on the opening movement, though also in the second. The finale hardly plays itself but it is less in danger of structural imbalance.

The difference, it seems to me, between the admittedly slow Gilels/Jochum and this slightly quicker Zimerman/Rattle first movement lies in the inevitability of phrasing generated by the former partnership and the ancillary conveyance of tension and line. Rattle and Zimerman have clearly thought hard about the structure and elasticity of this movement but the unsympathetic may baulk at the precious orchestral pianissimos and the rather paragraphal approach. Whilst much of the playing is quite splendid, abetted by a first class recording which is clear and natural sounding, the sense of tension sapping away at the very start of the concerto is worrying and unconvincing. A master accompanist such as Szell could easily accommodate profoundly differing approaches to this work – note the way he follows Curzon’s and Serkin’s altogether different readings without any loss of drama or conviction. Yes, the orchestral perspective is revealing – the flute’s cantilena, the striking double basses – but for all Zimerman’s crystalline chording, much of it quite magnificent in its clarity, his approach inevitably shares a certain marmoreal and "sensitive" ponderousness. For all their basically slow tempi here one never ceases to marvel at the way in which Gilels and Jochum accommodate incident to the greater whole.

The slow movement’s introspection operates on a similarly broad plain and I know of relatively few recordings that are slower. In his recording with Szell, Curzon was fractionally slower, though with Jorda he adopted a healthy 14.19, which broadly aligned with Gilels/Jochum. The question here is one of corporate restraint and the promotion of an essentially static hauteur. For all their delicacy, the fact of the matter is that slowness is not necessarily an indicator of expressive depth, and the exploration of dramatic pianissimos argues perhaps for an immediate verticality of response rather than lateral perception.

The finale, however goes well. There’s a rejuvenating spring in the step and a drive to the rhythm. Zimerman’s evenness of trills is special, the Berlin horns and lower strings score highly and are warmly and finely recorded. There’s a Schumannesque clarity to the soloist’s passagework that can upstage smudgier performers of repute. And performers who indulge the pedal here should lend an ear to Zimerman.

Conclusion? A strong, personalised reading but one that will divide opinion. The orchestral accompaniment lacks a true sense of inevitability and tension. Jochum’s linearity is not in evidence, Szell’s sympathetic but not indulgent drama is similarly missing; in this respect the soloist is equally responsible.

The Concerto comes without any filler, if that’s not too infantile a word, but I understand it’s issued at mid-price to compensate for running fifty-one minutes.

Jonathan Woolf



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