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 Recording of the Week, Beethoven Piano Concertos from Krystian Zimerman and Simon Rattle

One of the consequences of last year's lockdowns was the cancellation of concerts, intended as the culmination of the 2020 Beethoven anniversary, in which Krystian Zimerman was to perform all five of the piano concertos with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. I say cancellation, although that's not strictly true: the performances, relocated from the Barbican to LSO St Luke's, were streamed on DG Stage and have now been released by Deutsche Grammophon.

Krystian Zimerman and Simon RattleWhenever I watch an interview or a masterclass with Zimerman, I am struck not only by his musical intelligence but also by his keen wit, and indeed throughout this set there is an atmosphere of playfulness that is a delight to behold. The best example of this can be found in Zimerman's very first entry in Concerto No. 1: by slightly detaching the opening upbeat from the rest of the phrase, and by extending the silence in between the two phrases by just the tiniest of fractions, he introduces a dash of cheeky insouciance that makes it sound as if Zimerman has perhaps started playing one of the Bagatelles by accident. After hearing it so charmingly shaped like this, many other interpretations sound somewhat po-faced and foursquare in comparison!

Zimerman has recorded these concertos before, and as magnificent as those performances with the Vienna Philharmonic are, if I had to compare the two I would say that this new set is even more alive with freedom and spontaneity. Zimerman has talked warmly of his rapport with Rattle, saying: "[Rattle] knows that I can break out at any moment, and I know he will follow at any time, and vice versa. If I allow myself to have fun, he won't let me get away with it — the rematch will follow within the next two minutes!". This fluidity is extremely successful particularly in the slow movements, where you really can discern soloist and orchestra moving as one entity.

On the other hand, I do not mean to imply any lack of profundity where required: in the middle movement of the Fourth Concerto there is a weight and dramatic urgency to the string sound, contrasting with the cantabile, rhapsodic interjections from the piano. Furthermore, Rattle and Zimerman are experts at taking a moment and lingering on it just enough to generate an extraordinary mood of anticipation and suspense. In the Fifth Concerto, for instance, Zimerman draws out the transition from the second movement into the third just a few seconds more than usual, making everyone wait that little bit longer, so that when the final Rondo eventually begins, there is a heightened sense of arrival and catharsis.

I was occasionally surprised at how robust Zimerman's playing sometimes is: some passages that in many other hands might often be treated delicately by the soloist are here given a heftier outing, supported by a sturdy left hand. This pays dividends, though, in the contrast it creates when Zimerman does choose to hold back: after an impassioned introduction from muted strings, his first entry in the second movement of the Emperor concerto demonstrates to perfection the expressive touch that he is capable of. His pedalling technique here is phenomenal, turning the gently flowing series of triplets into a magical cascade of fragile raindrops.

To my ears, the change of venue has had little effect on the clarity of the recorded sound, with the balance between orchestra and soloist frequently ideal, especially the back and forth between piano and woodwinds in the slow movement of the First Concerto. By the same token, I had hardly registered before that in the last movement of the Fourth Concerto a lot of the piano passages are actually underpinned by a solo cello offering harmonic support, but here this comes across easily in the mix without being too intrusive.

I wouldn't wish to labour the point about the conditions under which these recordings were made, but throughout all five concertos there is a palpable feeling of joy and elation about the very act of being able to make music. This exuberance is one of the many strengths of this spirited set of performances.

Krystian Zimerman (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC