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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op 15 [33:56]
Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major, Op 19 [29:12]
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37 [35:25]
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 [34:26]
Piano Concerto No 5 in E-flat major ‘Emperor', Op 73 [39:43]
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 2020, LSO St. Luke’s, London
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4839971 [3 CDs: 172:40]

What was to be the culmination of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 250th anniversary celebrations of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, namely the complete cycle of the composer’s five piano concertos with Krystian Zimerman, unfortunately fell victim to covid restrictions. All was not lost, however, and the orchestra decamped to their rehearsal space at LSO St. Luke’s. The set up was socially distanced seating of the players with protective screens, and no audience. All five concertos were recorded and streamed over three evenings. It’s these performances which have just been released by DG in this three CD set.

This isn’t Zimerman’s first recorded traversal of these concertos. He visited them with the Vienna Philharmonic back in 1989. Nos 3, 4 and 5 were collaborations with Leonard Bernstein, but when the conductor died the pianist decided to complete the cycle by directing Nos I and 2 himself from the keyboard. Interpretively they have many similarities with these newcomers, but the Vienna sound is more plush, and tempi are marginally broader.

I was fascinated to read in the accompanying booklet notes that Zimerman uses several interchangeable keyboards, each reflecting the type of piano Beethoven would have had at his disposal when composing them. The aim is also to capture the individual character of each concerto. Nos 1 and 2 are lighter and humorous, and No 3 is stormy. When it comes to the Fourth Concerto the pianist opts for a Walter piano, which has a stronger action yet is capable of lightness and fluidity. He remarks “I learned that Beethoven had obtained a Walter instrument and probably worked on it while writing No 4, which would explain a lot”. It combines the colour of an early piano with the power and scope of a modern one. The Fifth Concerto is the only one the composer never performed.

All the qualities I find in Zimerman’s playing are here, pianism of aristocratic bearing and refinement. One can only marvel at the pristine finger work and clarity of execution. Another endearing aspect is the poetry and grace he invests in the slow movements.

Beethoven used the B-flat piano concerto to introduce himself to the Viennese public and demonstrate to them his formidable keyboard skills. Although known today as No 2, it preceded the C major Concerto. Both early concertos are permeated with his own individual voice. These performances exude a real sense of enjoyment, with the outer movements vital, exuberant and joyful. The finale of No 2, especially, I would describe as feisty. The slow movements are warm and intimate, and Zimerman contours the lyrical lines with eloquence and expressivity.

The performance of the Third Concerto is epic in scale. Rattle sculpts the opening tutti in dramatic terms, underlining the darker tempestuous elements in the score. The Largo is one of the finest I’ve heard on disc, both tender and unassuming. Zimerman’s tone is pearl-like and gleaming. The finale bristles with energy and verve. When Zimerman intones the opening chords of the Fourth Concerto it feels like chamber music, such is the intimacy evoked. The movement then progresses in unhurried fashion, with moments of serenity richly savoured. Rattle achieves just the right amount of tonal weight in the opening measures of the central slow movement. The Rondo finale, which enters without a break, is energetic and ebullient.

A magnificent cadenza sets the scene at the beginning of the Fifth Concerto for what is a magisterial reading; how very different to those quiet, unassuming chords which usher in the Fourth. The first movement is aristocratic, heroic, imposing, potent and virile. Yet it never gives way to excess or grandstanding. Zimerman’s diaphanous tone in the slow movement is breathtaking and magical. The finale enters without a break and is dispatched with panache, ending in a blaze of glory.

Considering the extra distances involved between players due to social distances, the DG engineers have done a sterling job in capturing a beautiful sound and achieving an ideal balance between soloist and orchestral musicians. It couldn’t have been easy. Rattle himself says “… you have to send the music over long distances … Sometimes it feels like blowing smoke signals over a mountain”. The result is compelling, and gets my warmest recommendation.

Stephen Greenbank

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