Thursday 17 December marked the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s baptismal, the only documented date related to the composer’s birth. Celebrating the occasion, pianist Krystian Zimerman, teaming up with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, embarked upon a journey through the Beethoven concerto cycle.
Available on Deutsche Grammophon’s streaming platform, DG Stage, the performances were recorded live at LSO St Lukes’s Jerwood Hall, a couple of blocks down from the orchestra’s main venue, the Barbican Hall, on three evenings between 5 and 13 December.
As a result of top-class, and undoubtably hectic, scheduling and rescheduling, the performances finally took place within the narrow time-frame between the lockdown measures imposed upon the concert venues in London.
While the planned main event, a marathon live concert featuring all five piano concertos at the Barbican Hall, scheduled on 17 December, fell victim of the new restrictions applied, the recorded performances form LSO St Lukes luckily made it possible to invite larger audiences via the DG Stage.
The first concert stream was launched by DG on 17 December, with the next installments to be released on 19 and 21 December, respectively. The complete concerto cycle will subsequently appear in an audio album guise, the CD release slated for publication next April.
Thirty one years have passed since Zimerman’s first recorded account of the Beethoven concerti. Preserved on audio and video by DG, Zimerman began recording the concertos in Vienna in September 1989, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker.
As for Rattle, this is his third complete cycle on record, following a 1997 account with Alfred Brendel and Wiener Philharmoniker, released on a three-disc set by Philips, and an audio/video cycle recorded live in February 2010 with Mitsuko Uchida and the Berliner Philharmoniker, released as a boxed set by the Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings in 2019.
Long-standing collaborators, Zimerman and Rattle made their first joint recording in Berlin in 2004. Released in 2006, the album featured a tremendous take on the Brahms Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1854-59). Their second collaboration, a superlative account of Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1988) with the Berliner Philharmoniker appeared nine years later.
The third album take by Zimerman and Rattle, an outstanding performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, The Age of Anxiety (1947-49/1965) for piano and orchestra, was recorded in Berlin in June 2018 in celebration of the composer’s centenary. Six months earlier, Rattle and Zimerman had performed the symphony with the LSO at the Barbican, their most recent London collaboration before the Beethoven project.
The five surviving piano concertos by Beethoven are, of course, an Everest to climb for any soloist, conductor and orchestra. Their familiarity often betrays the sheer assault of originality embedded in the scores, alongside a myriad of challenges imposed by Beethoven upon his performers.
Beethoven was intermittently occupied with the concerto form for thirty years. His rapid, ever-evolving stylistic development manifests itself within the cycle of piano concertos, a compositional period extending from the 1780s to 1810.
The two concertos in C, major and minor, are featured on the first of LSO St Lukes concerts. The Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-01) was first performed as a part of Beethoven’s academy concert at the Theater an der Wien in April 1803, with the composer as soloist.
Alongside the new concerto, two other Beethoven premieres were heard in the 1803 concert, namely those of Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1801-03) and the passion-tide oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives (1803/1804/1811), performed and recorded by the LSO and Rattle earlier this year.
Customarily for Beethoven, the solo part of the Concerto in C minor was not written out in full for the premiere. Instead, the materials used for the first performance apparently featured only some sketched jottings in the solo part, a page-turner’s nightmare. The solo line was only written down in detail for the 1804 performance, with Ferdinand Ries as soloist.
The concerto, like all Beethoven’s forays to the genre, is cast in three movements, based on a fast-slow-fast scheme. The extended first movement, marked allegro con brio opens with a compelling orchestra introduction, with the hushed dialogue between the strings and oboes, bassoons and horns anticipating the looming orchestral vehemence.
At the Jerwood Hall stream, Rattle and the LSO deliver an absolutely enthralling build-up for the orchestral introduction. The first tutti burst, displays the astonishing combination of colour and clarity of the LSO, with gorgeous depth added by Nigel Thomas’s timpani.
Zimerman’s first entry in clad in finesse of touch and sensitivity of phrasing, the virtues eminent throughout his tremendous performance. As the movement unfolds, the dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra yields to special magnificence.
In terms of sonority, this is, first and foremost, a modern performance. The LSO brass perform with their usual fine instruments instead of period ones, and the overall sound of the orchestra perfectly matches the glorious hue of Zimerman’s Steinway.
Yet, on a more fundamental level, the soloist and the orchestra, with Rattle on the podium, delve deep into the Beethovenian practice, delivering a best-of-both-worlds account, with historically informed practices interwoven into tradition.
The soloist opens the largo second movement with a sublime meditation, admirably brought to sonic reality by Zimerman. The orchestra joins, and the musical fabric grows into an affecting tableau of compassion and subtle melancholy.
With Rattle, the LSO embraces Beethoven’s delicate textures wholeheartedly. In the course of the movement, several alluring instrumental passages are heard. To point out just a few, immense beauty can be found in equal measure in Gareth Davies’s flute solos as well as in the dark-hued double bass lines.
Zimerman conveys the solo part with luminous insight and utmost beauty, resulting in the most rewarding performance.
In the finale rondo, the soloist and the orchestra plunge into an invigorating dialogue. Marvellously paced, the melodic exuberance of the keyboard and winds is mixed with contrapuntal feast of the whole ensemble in the most inspired manner. Concluding with a thoroughly uplifting rendition of the closing presto, the performance is a joyful affair indeed.
As is well known, the score we’ve always known as the Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1795/1800) was not the first one Beethoven composed. In addition to the Concerto No. 2 in B flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19 (1787-89/1795), there was even an earlier completed precursor, Concerto in E flat, WoO 4 (1784) for which only the solo piano part survives.
In any case, Beethoven’s first published concerto makes wonderful pairing with the Concerto in C minor on the DG stream.
The previous appearances of the Concerto No. 1 in C major in the LSO programmes took place in February 2019, with Piotr Anderszewski as soloist and Sir John Eliot Gardiner on the podium. Performed both on tour and at the Barbican, their insightful take is still firmly etched in memory.
On the Zimerman and Rattle stream, another memorable and profoundly uplifting performance is heard. Evident from the very first bar of the introduction on, the LSO is the proven top team for Beethoven. With Rattle, the orchestra delivers a powerhouse performance, clad in fine detail and resplendent textures.
The soloist and the orchestra are perfectly tuned to each other, as is evident throughout the witty dialogue between the winds and the keyboard. The strings play their hearts out, supported by the thunderous timpani and the brilliant brass. The full spectrum of the dynamic scale is embraced, to a stunning effect.
At the Jerwood Hall, the traditional, albeit safety-distanced, string seating is applied, instead of antiphonally placed first and second violins. The latter scheme would undoubtably be somewhat complicated with distanced seating, making the players overtly dependent on the conductor’s beat.
Following an earthquake of a tutti, Zimerman delivers the most splendid account of Beethoven’s second cadenza, resulting in one of the veritable highlights of the marvellous performance. The orchestra joins for thirteen bars, to bring the movement to its ravishing close.
The largo second movement is a case in point of teamwork at the highest level, yielding to a fabulous sonic installment of Beethoven’s sublime textures. Orchestral chamber music at its very best, the LSO share the musical thought with their soloist in the most immediate and communicative manner, ever clad in the finest detail imaginable. Zimerman’s mastery over the solo part is utmost admirable.
Rounding off with a festive account of Beethoven’s finale rondo, the Concerto in C major comes to its riveting close. Clad in bright colours and engaging rhythms, the finale is a dancing manifestation of joie de vivre in sound.
An evening of delightful discovery and inextinguishable invention, one looks forward to the next installments with thrill and joy.
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
Krystian Zimerman, piano
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 3 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 37 (1800-01)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 1 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15 (1795/1800)
Recorded live at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Lukes, 5 December 2020, 5.30 pm
First released on DG Stage, 17 December 2020, 8 pm (CET)
© Jari Kallio