Upbeat finale for the gorgeous Beethoven concerto cycle by Krystian Zimerman, the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle

Krystian Zimerman portrait by © Bartek Barczyk / Deutsche Grammophon

All good things… On Monday, the third and final stream in the magnificent, three-concert cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos by Krystian Zimerman, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra was released on Deutsche Grammophon’s online performance platform, DG Stage. 

The first two iterations in the series, featuring intriguing performances of the Concertos 1-4 from the LSO St Lukes in London, were released on Thursday 17 and Saturday 19 December, respectively. 

The closing affair, Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (1809-10), was recorded live at LSO St Lukes on 13 December. The original Jerwood Hall programme included Igor Stravinsky’s eloquent ballet score Apollon musagète (1927-28/1947) on the first half, omitted from the DG stream. 

Given its style and scope, Beethoven’s last piano concerto fares more than well as a standalone item. 

Zimerman’s previous recording of the Concerto No. 5 derives from live performances at the Vienna Musikverein on 16-17 September 1989, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. While lot has changed in the course of the thirty one years between the two recorded takes, several connections prevail too. 

On both occasions, Zimerman fuses grandiose gesture and sublime detail into a splendid logical continuum, with insightful grasp of the overall architecture. Over the years his vision has become even more refined, with the musical process distilled into perfection.

Both Rattle and Bernstein provide their soloist with a wholehearted companionship, steering their orchestras through Beethoven’s score with inextinguishable inspiration. While Bernstein’s account with the Viennese is still firmly rooted in the modern tradition, albeit clad in newly-found transparency, Rattle’s reading with the LSO makes great use of the historically informed practice, while brilliantly endorsing the rich sonorities of the present-day instruments. 

Unlike its predecessors, Beethoven did not write his final completed concerto for himself. Instead, it was premiered by Archduke Rudolph, the composer’s pupil and patron, who augured the concerto in a private performance at the Palace of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz on 13 January 1811. The first public outing followed ten moths later in Leipzig, with Friedrich Schneider as soloist at the Gewandhaus on 28 November 1811. 

Beethoven set out to write the concerto in March 1809. On the very same day he began to compose the second movement, Austria declared war on Napoleon. Beethoven’s refections on the war, including his first hand witness’s account of the bombardment of Vienna by French artillery on 11-12 May, found their way into the manuscript alongside the music itself. 

Perhaps the single most telling remark by Beethoven in the autograph manuscript is the word ”dämmernd” or ”the fading of day”, inscribed above the soloist’s first entry in the slow movement. 

In the midst of all this uncertainty, Beethoven conceived a concerto of bold gestures, contrasted by contemplative reflections. Scored for keyboard and an orchestra of duple winds and brass, strings and timpani, the concerto is a vehement affair. The two trumpets and timpani appear in the outer movements, extending the sonic palette and dynamic scale. 

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal with Kristian Zimmerman at the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s on Friday 4 December 2020. © Mark Allan / Deutsche Grammophon

The opening allegro is the most extended movement in all five concerti. Based on three themes, the twenty-minute movement opens with a single tutti chord, followed by a pronounced, cadenza-like fortissimo entry of the soloist, broken only by the second and third orchestral chords. 

After the introduction, the movement proper launches ten bars later, developing into a dazzling dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. Beethoven couples his soloist with various instrumental groupings with splendid imagination, before the movement lands on its closing chords at bars 577-581. 

Zimerman’s mastery over the solo part is evident throughout the movement. The keyboard lines are brought to their sonorous guise with utmost sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics, yielding to a compellingly idiomatic performance.  

With Rattle, the LSO performs with ever-eloquent phrasing, clad in admirable transparency and resplendent orchestral colour. In the course of the opening movement, astounding tutti and solo passages are heard one after another, resulting in a compelling reading of Beethoven’s orchestral score.

The soloist and the orchestra are in perfect accord throughout the movement, giving rise to a series of the most lively dialogues between Zimerman and the musicians of the LSO. Balance and rhythmic integrity is kept in top shape by Rattle, resulting in an inspiringly upbeat performance. 

Dispensing with the trumpets and timpani, the ensuing adagio un poco mosso second movement adopts the tone of contemplative reflection. A sublime, fifteen-bar orchestral introduction paves the way for the soloist’s pianissimo entry. 

Beautifully realized by the LSO, Rattle and Zimerman, the second movement opening is clad in the most delicate raiments. From these spellbinding bars on, the music unfolds in dreamlike manner, yielding to a deeply moving sonic vision of serenity and tranquil, enwrapped in the waning daylight.    

At the close of the dreamscape, the soloist’s two-bar bridge ties the slow movement to the allegro, ma non troppo finale rondo. The closing movement bathes in radiant daylight, as the soloist and the orchestra are engaged in luminous dance. 

Once again, Beethoven is proven master in combining the courtly and the vernacular into a whirlwind-of-a-dance-scene. In the course of the rondo, the solo keyboard part sways to and fro between various orchestral partners, before the the music lands on a brilliant duet between the soloist and timpani, paving the way for the final chords. 

Ravishingly performed by Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO musicians, the allegro, ma non troppo is a joyful affair indeed. Life-affirming in its superlative musicality, the performance is one to alight each face with radiant smile.    

To be released on CDs by DG in April, the audio recordings from the LSO St Lukes sessions will be eagerly awaited. In addition, one would hope that a complete account of these concert videos would also become commercially available, preferably in the Blu-ray format. While, in the end, it is the music that matters, the visual aspect does enhance the intense intimacy of these recordings. 

Krystian Zimerman in rehearsal with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra at the LSO St Lukes. © Mark Allan / Deutsche Grammophon

Seeing Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO perform at the beautifully-lit Jerwood Hall, with safety distances, reminds us of all the hardships fought and won by the whole team in order to make these concerts happen in the short time-frame between the lockdowns. 

As a whole the three-concert online series has been a perfect way to close the Beethoven anniversary year.          

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Krystian Zimerman, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 in E flat major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 (1809-10)

Recorded live at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Lukes, 13 December 2020, 5.30 pm

First released on DG Stage on 21 December 2020, 8 pm (CET) 

© Jari Kallio

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