This was one of the crueller cancellations, falling victim to London’s Tier 3 restrictions just 48 hours before the concert was due to take place at the Barbican. The climax to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven 250 celebrations was to have been a marathon survey of all five piano concertos in one evening – and a rare chance to catch Krystian Zimerman in London. The five concerts scheduled to precede it, each concerto presented in juxtaposition with works by Stravinsky, were also scrapped. But all was not lost.

Krystian Zimerman © DG Stage
Krystian Zimerman
© DG Stage

The orchestra decamped to LSO St Luke’s, home to its autumn series of streams, and the five concertos were recorded across three evenings, with a tiny audience admitted, subsequently streamed on DG Stage. The Yellow Label plans to release the recordings on CD too. Indeed, the First has already appeared in digital format. A speedy turnaround then, but there was nothing slipshod about the production values of these streams, well filmed with plenty of tracking shots of Zimerman from alongside the Steinway. 

The Polish pianist looked happy and relaxed, his immaculately coiffed snowy white hair and beard giving him the look of a stylish Santa. His playing was just as stylish, right from the piano response to the bold, forte ascending opening motif of the Third Concerto, where he also applied the brakes ever so gently. Purity and clarity are hallmarks of Zimerman’s playing and there was an almost aristocratic composure to his phrasing and a velvet touch, the camera providing such extreme close-ups that one could admire his closely clipped fingernails. Everything was meticulous, not a hair nor a quaver out of place.

Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle © DG Stage
Krystian Zimerman and Sir Simon Rattle
© DG Stage

There was nothing heavy or plush about the actual interpretations. Zimerman recorded these five concertos in the late 1980s with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (Bernstein died before the cycle was completed and Zimerman directed Nos.1 and 2 from the piano himself). In almost every movement, the current performances were swifter, helped by the leaner string sound of the LSO, possibly down to social distancing requirements, although Sir Simon Rattle tends to favour a more sinewy sound in Beethoven in any case. And with Nigel Thomas using hard sticks on the timpani, there was a suitably punchy orchestral sound. The opening tutti of the First was particularly aggressive. Period instrument devotees would doubtless have welcomed something a bit more bracing and abrasive, but there’s nothing wrong with a touch of luxury, especially after the year we’ve all had, and the LSO woodwinds, with some swapping of principals between concertos, were refined, notably Olivier Stankiewicz (oboe) and Chris Richards (clarinet).

Krystian Zimerman © DG Stage
Krystian Zimerman
© DG Stage

Everything about Zimerman’ playing seemed just right, good-tempered and elegant, jaunty in finales, once even using his free left hand to cue in Rattle in the Fourth’s closing Rondo. The Second was imbued with Mozartian grace. Central movements were reflective, but never lugubrious. There was poetry in the first movement cadenzas. Where Beethoven gives the soloist multiple options, Zimerman chose the longer cadenza in the Fourth, but in the First has switched from the longest to the shortest, most mercurial of the three Beethoven penned, barely a minute long.

The cycle was crowned with a truly magnificent reading of the Emperor, Zimerman floating somewhere between rhapsody and reverie in the long first movement, refusing to be jostled by the orchestra. There was fluidity in the central Adagio un poco mosso before a finale of unbridled joy, with Zimerman and Rattle exchanging several smiles. There is an obvious rapport between these musicians. Let’s hope Rattle can tempt him back to London often.


These performances were reviewed from the DG Stage video stream

*****