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This is the third recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos in which Sir Simon Rattle has collaborated with a distinguished pianist. A couple of years ago I enjoyed a set in which Dame Mitsuko Uchida was the splendid soloist. Those performances were recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic in February 2010; they were the subject of a de-luxe release on the orchestra’s own label (review). Previously, Rattle had recorded the concertos in 1997 and 1998 with Alfred Brendel and the Vienna Philharmonic (Philips 462 781-2). It speaks volumes for Rattle’s reputation as a concerto accompanist that three such different and eminent pianists have chosen to record the Beethoven concertos with him.
One important fact about these recordings is that they were made when Covid-related restrictions were in force in the UK. These restrictions, both in the UK and in most other countries, largely put paid to concert celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s death in 2020. I’m not entirely sure if Zimerman and Rattle planned to perform the concertos live; probably they did. Through ingenuity and determination on the part of many people, studio sessions were arranged in LSO St Luke’s as the anniversary year drew to a close. It was necessary to seat every single player at a “social distance” from each other and they all had protective screens. A photograph in the booklet, taken during the sessions, shows the layout. As Simon Rattle comments in the booklet, “you have to send the music over long distances…Sometimes it feels like blowing smoke signals over a mountain.” I expect that by December 2020 the LSO had, like most other orchestras, acquired some experience of playing under the constraints of social distancing. Even so, the challenges of maintaining cohesive ensemble and managing interplay, not only between soloist and orchestra but also within the ranks of the orchestra itself, should not be underestimated. It’s a considerable achievement by all the musicians that there’s no sense, as one listens to these recordings, that they were playing under less-than-ideal conditions.
Zimerman recorded the concertos once before, also for DG, but I’ve not heard those
performances, so I’m glad he decided on a remake. One detail that caught my attention in the booklet is that he fitted his piano with a variety of interchangeable keyboards in order to bring out to the full the different characteristics of each work.
In the First concerto Rattle’s approach to the orchestral introduction is lithe and rhythmical. String vibrato seems to be kept very much in check; this is a characteristic of all five performances. Zimerman’s playing is light, dexterous and playful, which is in keeping with the music. Wit is also evident in the orchestral contribution. Overall, the performance has plenty of strength but the bluff humour also comes through. Throughout the set Zimerman uses Beethoven’s own cadenzas and in this concerto, he uses the second cadenza. The Largo is serene and spacious. Zimerman’s playing is elevated, as is the orchestral contribution. I was pleased to find that Beethoven’s writing for the woodwind choir is given full value. In particular, the principal clarinettist (Chris Richards, I presume), treats us to a series of fine solos. The finale is very dynamic. The performance combines playfulness with a degree of robustness.
The Second concerto opens with a strongly projected account of the orchestral introduction. The orchestral element of this performance is often quite muscular and that provides a pleasing contrast with Zimerman’s nimble articulation of the solo part. The Adagio is caringly done and the Rondo finale is suitably perky. I’m never sure that this concerto, which was sketched first, is the equal of the C major concerto, but I enjoyed hearing Zimerman and Rattle perform it.
The Third concerto marks a distinct step up; significantly, its home key is a minor key. Rattle demonstrates the advance on the first two concertos through the dramatic, purposeful unfolding of the orchestral introduction. Zimerman takes his cue from this with a very forceful opening flourish. In the booklet he says this of the Third: “I wanted to interpret it as very harsh, with a sound that is more granite than marble”. This, presumably, is an instance of the importance of the interchangeable keyboards. He certainly sets out his granite stall with his first entry. What follows is an intense and at times turbulent performance from both Zimerman and the LSO. To this the Largo
proves the perfect foil. The tone is set by Zimerman’s rapt opening solo;
it’s as if he’s communing with himself. The LSO offer very sensitive support
in what is a poetic and beautiful account of the movement. The account of the Rondo finale mixes geniality with more robust passages; it’s a big performance of the movement and I love the skittish way in which the Presto coda is delivered.
At the start of the Fourth concerto there’s a typical Simon Rattle touch in the very hushed way that the strings answer the piano opening. In the long orchestral introduction, Rattle shapes the music thoughtfully in a performance of contrasts as well as light and shade. As the movement unfolds, I really liked the exchanges and interplay between soloist and orchestra. Ideally paced, this movement goes really well. Zimerman, who uses Beethoven’s first cadenza, balances poetry with rhetoric most convincingly. In the Andante con moto, the LSO strings are initially very gruff, as they should be. Zimerman, as the quiet voice of reason, gradually calms them. Then the finale is buoyant and energetic, concluding an excellent traversal of the concerto.
After Zimerman has announced the ‘Emperor’ with imperious flourishes, the first movement is full of power and tension, though that’s not to say that the relaxed episodes are neglected. This is a big, commanding performance from all concerned; it’s heroic in conception. The Adagio un poco moto is an oasis of tranquillity; Zimerman is at his poetic best here. In the subdued transition to the Rondo his pianistic touch is wonderful, really making us hold our breath during this anticipatory passage. Once released, the finale itself leaps forward like a stag. The reading of this movement has an abundance of energy and is full of brio and panache.
These are very fine performances of the Beethoven piano concertos. Kristian Zimerman is a wonderful soloist. One takes virtuosity as a given at this level but what impressed me time and again was the nuanced nature of his playing and the many touches of poetry. In Sir Simon Rattle he has a conductor who is clearly on exactly the same page: theirs is a notable partnership and Rattle obtains marvellous playing from the LSO; the challenges of social distancing are triumphantly overcome.
The sound Rattle gets from the orchestra in loud tutti passages is very
full, particularly in the last three concertos. I have no problem at all
with that, though I might have preferred to hear the timpani played with
harder sticks than seems to be the case.
A little while ago, we auditioned part of this set in the MusicWeb Listening Studio. My colleagues and I were impressed overall by the recorded sound in the movement from the Third concerto to which we listened. In particular, we thought that the engineers had recorded the piano very well. We also made this comment: “Listening to the orchestral contribution with its lovely warm lyrical sound, you really wouldn’t know that social distancing was involved. It’s possible that there’s an element of “contrivance” involved, in the sense of more microphones used than would normally be the case but, if so, the results fully justify what the engineers have done.”. Hearing the set in its entirety has confirmed those judgements: the recordings are very consistent.
I enjoyed and admired this set very much. It’s well worth hearing.