The name of Krystian Zimerman was a shoo-in for a pair of full-house concerts at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall. He had originally planned to perform all five Beethoven piano concertos in 2020 but the pandemic put an end to that. Now we had the chance to witness him performing just one Beethoven concerto – the Fourth – leading from the keyboard and then conducting a symphony (also the Fourth), was just too good an opportunity to pass up. 

Krystian Zimerman
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Zimerman is well-known to be pernickety in all details, including flying in his own grand piano, checking for hidden microphones and forbidding all forms of audio or visual recording (authorised or otherwise). On this occasion, he need not have worried as the Esplanade has reliably excellent Steinway grands and he was playing for an audience accustomed to following rules in extremely law-abiding Singapore. All he had to do was make music. 

The G major chord and solo that opened the Fourth Concerto could not have been more plain-spoken. Neither affectation nor exaggerated effects were needed, and the orchestral ritornello that followed was crafted with the same simplicity and directness. Clearly this was conceived as chamber music with the soloist as leader, and Zimerman fulfilled that role to a tee. His playing was limpid and articulate, and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s response had lightness and mobility. Beethoven’s own first movement cadenza was used, and not some grotesque parody that certain soloists are wont to attempt. 

Very brusque unison strings came attacca following the closing chord, and the seated Zimerman reacted with a start, as if shocked by the seeming assault. There was an inordinately long pause before the piano’s entry as a soothing salve to the rebuke. Seldom has the famous description of “Orpheus taming the Furies” been taken so literally and theatrically. But tame he did, as the strings superbly led by Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich (now of the BBC Symphony) went from roar to purr, and to serenely eating out of Zimerman’s hands. 

The finale was lively and buoyant, with a continuation of the earlier transparency, culminating with an audacious downward glissando (most pianists just play a simple scale) followed by an upward chromatic scale. Many would have heard this concerto multiple times, but Zimerman instilled a freshness that made this encounter an enriching one. Encouraged by exemplary audience behaviour (no latecomers, no coughing fits), he rewarded the throng with three encores: Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major (Op.15 no.2), Brahms’ Intermezzo in B flat minor (Op.117 no.2) and Szymanowski’s Prelude in B minor (Op.1 no.1), rendered with colour and beauty. 

Those who expected a stark diminution of Zimerman’s interpretive abilities in Beethoven’s Symphony no. 4 in B flat major would be disappointed, for this was a no-nonsense reading without any idiosyncrasies, sweeping away decades of preconceived ideas (and accretions of bad habits). The orchestra had already performed a swift and lithe performance of this symphony under Music Director Hans Graf in January, and this one had a similar lightness and directness. There was simply no posturing for its own sake, but an immediacy that should not have been surprising. 

While the first two movements were taken straight, the Scherzo was possibly too straight, and could have done with Beethoven’s simulation of ungainliness which Graf simply nailed. The finale’s rapid tarantella rhythm was launched into fearlessly, with the strings in fine form from start to end, bringing this gala concert to a spectacular close.