On several occasions when I listened to Brahms’s first piano concerto in concert, I was left wondering whether Brahms really intended the pianist to play with so much physical force to compete with the orchestra. Too often, the soloist seems to struggle against a symphonically conceived orchestral sound. Certainly, especially in the first movement, there are passages where the piano needs to be musically forceful when confronting the orchestra. But more often in this work, the role of the piano is integrated in the orchestral texture, and it should be ensured that the piano solos are not overpowered by the orchestral sound.

Happily, there were no such balance problems in Krystian Zimerman’s performance of the concerto with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) at Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall. Currently on their Far East Tour, Jansons and the orchestra launched the Japanese leg of the tour in Kawasaki, with further performances in Kyoto, Tokyo and Hyogo. Zimerman’s concerto appearance has been the highlight of the tour programme, as he rarely performs concertos these days, and only with a handful of conductors he trusts.

Zimerman gave an impeccable performance – beautifully controlled and every detail thought-through (as his performances always are) yet responding with warmth and spontaneity to the orchestra, especially to the solo winds. He seemed always conscious of the piano’s role within the work – his solos would appear from within, rather than against the orchestra and the piano bass part was always at one with the orchestral bass line. In fact, whenever he wasn’t playing, he would turn towards the orchestra and live through every phrase with the players. But it was Jansons’ sensitive control of the orchestral dynamics and the transparency of texture that enabled Zimerman the widest possible expressive range, from the softest touch in the tender second subject of the first movement to the turbulent aggression in the development section. One noticed how Jansons would bring down the orchestra an extra level before a quiet piano entry. It was the most ideally balanced and blended performance of the work I have experienced live.

Furthermore, the clarity of form and architecture Zimerman and Jansons displayed, especially in the large-scale first movement, was impressive. The second movement was taken at a slow pace and Zimerman’s phrasing initially felt a little deliberate, but his gradual build-up to the climatic Orgelpunkt section was magnificent. In the rondo third movement, taken quite briskly, there were a few ensemble slips, but that aside, it was a masterful performance led by two musicians who understand Brahms’ musical language deeply. One could perhaps say that this was a performance that viewed the work through the prism of his later works (for instance, one was reminded of Brahms’s late piano works in the second movement) rather than as the first symphonic endeavour of an ambitious youth in his mid-twenties. But frankly, that took nothing away from this deeply thoughtful and moving performance.

After the interval, Jansons and the enlarged BRSO (18 first violins) presented Ravel’s colourful and brilliant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Jansons being Jansons, this wasn’t the conventional showy performance one is used to with big Russian orchestras, but rather he took the whole work at a relatively slow pace and carefully brought out the character of each piece by highlighting and emphasizing many details that are often overlooked. It was a bit like looking at the work through a magnifying glass. For example, the way the strings emphasized the glissandi and portamenti in “The Gnome” was unlike any other performance I had heard before, and emphasized the grotesqueness of the piece. Also, there was some unusual but effective use of percussion such as the use of the gong in the “Catacombs” which is not specified in the conventional score (was Jansons using a new edition?), and the use of a real bell in the “The Great Gate of Kiev”.

From this performance, it was clear that Jansons valued clarity and colour over big effects, and it certainly brought a fresh, polished feel to this warhorse. But on the other hand, I missed a little bit of the raw edge, for instance the light but speedy character in “Tuileries” or the silly humour in “The Ballet of the unhatched Chicks”. The orchestral solos were refined, including the melancholic saxophone solo in “The Old Castle” and the tuba in “Bydło”, and throughout the orchestra produced a well-blended warm sound in the generous but clear acoustics of the Muza Kawasaki Hall (the brass chorale in the “Great Gate of Kiev” was gorgeous), but for me, it lacked the earthiness of Mussorsky’s original piano work. But then, this was after all Ravel’s arrangement and perhaps Jansons was trying to be true to that score.

They rounded off the concert with two contrasting dance encores: Johann Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance no. 15.