Krystian Zimerman, the LSO and Rattle embrace the joie de vivre of the Beethoven concerti

Pianist Krystian Zimerman portrait by © Kasskara / Deutsche Grammophon

On Saturday evening, the second installment of the Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle by Krystian Zimerman, London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle was released on Deutsche Grammphon’s online streaming platform, DG Stage.  

Recoded live at the LSO St Luke’s in London on Wednesday 9 December, the concert featured Beethoven’s two even-numbered concerti. To be released on CD in April, the concerto cycle was performed and recorded within the narrow time-frame of live concerts between lockdowns. 

Having these concerts available for streaming for wider audiences is both an immense delight and a wonderful way to close the Beethoven year, as the first concert stream on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s baptismal on Thursday resoundingly  demonstrated

Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO opened the second concert with the Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1787-89/1795). The earliest of Beethoven’s surviving concertos, it was the second one to be published, hence its numbering. 

Interestingly, if we take into account the Concerto in E flat, WoO 4 (1784), for which only the solo part survives, the Concerto No. 2 in B flat is, in fact, the only one in the whole cycle with a historically accurate number adhered. 

The autograph score for the Concerto No. 2 dates from 1798. The score features complete orchestral parts, while, not unusually for Beethoven, the piano staves are largely blank. The piano part was only written out in full for the first publication of the concerto in 1801. 

First movement cadenza by Beethoven himself survives. Written much later, there is a stylistic gap between the cadenza and the concerto proper. However, the cadenza can be viewed as the mature composer’s commentary on the music of his younger self, thus making it a befitting choice for performance, especially in a complete cycle like this. 

Scored for an orchestra of duple winds, apart from a solo flute, two horns and strings, the Concerto No. 2 is most closely related to Beethoven’s roots in Haydn and Mozart

The allegro con brio first movement opens with a spirited orchestral introduction. Flourishing into full bloom from the very first bars, the concerto is set in motion with a gorgeous tutti, performed with vigor and joy by the LSO musicians with Rattle. 

The soloist joins at bar 90, engaging the orchestra into a lively conversation with the witty, upbeat solo part. As manifested throughout their first concert aired on Thursday, the musical communication between Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO is ever seamless, resulting in the most inspired teamwork imaginable. 

Even though the Concerto in B flat major is still a relatively well-mannered affair, at least on Beethoven’s scale, the trademarks of his later style already appear throughout the score. In the first movement, he keeps surprising us with his twists and turns, in the guises of sudden sforzatos and obstinate repetitions.

The movement’s structural arch is elaborately conceived by Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO, with the music landing on the cadenza in the most natural manner. Performed with delicate beauty and admirable finesse by Zimerman, the cadenza is a small gem. Rounding of with a brief coda for the full ensemble, the first movement is closed with style. 

The ninety-one-bar adagio central movement is a poignant meditation, clad in an absolutely enchanting sonic guise by Zimerman and the orchestra, with Rattle. Luminously conceived, the music flows in gentle contemplation, until landing on the movement’s sublime coda. 

The last eighteen bars are performed with the most magical musicality. Zimerman and the Rattle-led LSO achieve zero gravity, as the music comes to life in splendid weightlessness. A musical moment to be firmly etched in memory for years to come.     

Beethoven closes the concerto with an allegretto moderato rondo, written in 1795 as a replacement for the originally intended finale, the Rondo in B flat, WoO 6 (1793). A witty affair, the finale rondo is given a joyful outing at LSO St Lukes. 

In the course of their marvellous musical conversation, Zimerman and the LSO exchange thoughts and ideas in an intriguing manner, with Rattle keeping the ensemble fabulously in balance. A cascade of colours emerge, as the movement unfolds. 

To point out just one fascinating detail, it should be noted that tempo build-up at bars 261-270 is the most fabulously conceived, with the soloist and the orchestra gaining full momentum before plunging into he respondent tutti. 

Closing with elated joy, the performance of the Concerto No. 2 in B flat major is one to treasure.   

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO in rehearsal with Krystian Zimerman in the Jewerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s on Friday 4 December 2020. © Mark Allan / Deutsche Grammophon

The dazzling Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1805-06) is certainly the most radical one among Beethoven’s forays into the medium, albeit in a sublime, refined way. Not only does Beethoven dispense with the orchestral introduction in the first movement, he conceives an unprecedented second movement, where the soloist and the orchestra are engaged in dialogue each playing musical material different from another.

Interestingly, the Concerto No. 4 was performed only twice in Beethoven’s lifetime, with the composer as soloist on both occasions. However, an anonymous arrangement of the concerto for piano and string quintet was highly popular in Vienna during the composer’s lifetime. 

The private premiere took place in March 1807, at the home of Prince Franz Jospeh von Lobkowitz, alongside the first performances of Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806-07) and the Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62 (1807). The first public performance took place on 22 December 1808, as a part of the legendary academy concert at the Theater an der Wien. 

While no autograph score of The Concerto No. 4 survives, the copyist’s score (1807) with Beethoven’s corrections is preserved in the Archiv der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna. In addition, a manuscript of the string quintet arrangement, based on authentic orchestral performance parts, survives, housed in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. 

The cadenzas, written by Beethoven in 1809, apparently, survive in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn.   

The orchestral setup in Concerto in G major is similar to the Concerto in B flat, with two trumpets and timpani added to give extra thrust and colour.  

Set forth by Zimerman’s perfectly shaped opening phrase, the astonishing fantasy of the concerto begins to unfold. The orchestra joins after five bars, with the LSO strings magically echoing the opening melody, as if emerging from the mists.   

As the opening section proceeds, woodwinds and brass join, and the LSO and Rattle make a gorgeous ascent towards the first tutti. 

The soloist rejoins the orchestra only at figure B (bar 74), launching the movement into its blossoming musical dialogue. With Rattle at the helm, Zimerman and the LSO paint a spectacular sonic fresco out of the first movement. A spellbinding journey, fashioned after an impeccable sense of architecture, resulting in one of the most convincing sonic guises for this music I’ve ever encountered. 

Zimerman’s rendering of the cadenza is again top-class; admirably lively and thoroughly measured. A microcosmos of its own, the cadenza leads to a marvellously brief closing with the orchestra.  

Now what could possibly follow a performance that, one might ask. The answer being an equally wondrous second movement, an outstanding performance by Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO.  

The andante con moto central movement has been often interpreted as Beethoven’s musical realization of Orpheus taming the Furies. While this is based on an assumption made by Beethoven’s posterity, it is indeed hard not to hear the music in this context. 

Be it as it may, the andante con moto is in any case a dramatic scene par excellence, clad in concertante guise. Since the concerto’s revival under Felix Mendelssohn in 1836, the movement has inspired generations of composers, most recently Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who adopted similar scheme for his thrilling piano concerto Responses. Sweet disorder and the carefully careless (2013-14).

With dramaturgy worthy of the best of operas, Zimerman and Rattle forge a tremendous scene out of the musical material. In the course of the movement, Zimerman’s unyielding solo line, clad in aching beauty, is repeatedly countered by the stern sound-wall of the LSO. 

However, upon each iteration, the orchestral fabric is turned more transparent, before succumbing into a murmur of pizzicati strings escorting the soloist’s final, impassioned statement, followed by a distant rumor from the orchestra. 

An abrupt change of mood is provided by the closing rondo, marked vivace in the score. Set into motion with a five-bar string introduction, the movement launches into a vigorous dance as the soloist delivers his first solo line. 

Krystian Zimerman, the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle in rehearsal at the LSO St Luke’s on Friday 4 December 2020. © Mark Allan / Deutsche Grammophon

A mixture of highbrow and vernacular idioms, a sequence of country dances unravels with the most elaborate musical architecture. Mostly set as dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, Beethoven adds string drones to the soloist’s lines, as if imitating bagpipes of a village band.

Performed with admirable sensitivity to the movements diverse ingredients, Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO deliver an outing of a lifetime. Emerging from all the silence imposed upon concert halls by this year of hardship, the performance is an apotheosis of the very essence of our humanity, a reminder of joie de vivre awaiting us there in the post-pandemic world.     

 It is concerts like this that make our contemporary struggles way more endurable.             

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Krystian Zimerman, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 2 in B flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19 (1787-89/1795)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 58 (1805-06)

Recorded live at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Lukes, 9 December 2020, 5.30 pm

First released on DG Stage on 19 December 2020, 8 pm (CET) 

© Jari Kallio

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