Album review: Krystian Zimerman, the LSO and Sir Simon Rattle team up for Beethoven on the Video Recording of the Year

Despite the fact that the pandemic called off the most of the celebrations scheduled for Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, the recorded legacy from the year 2020 does still include many notable album renditions, as demonstrated by the new entries made in the composer’s discography by the end of 2021.   

Among all these new recordings, one of the most substantial releases is, without question, the complete cycle of the composer’s piano concertos by Krystian Zimerman, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon. 

Released on audio and video, in the guise of a deluxe edition containing three CDs and two Blu-ray discs, 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. 

Following a hectic period of scheduling and rescheduling, involving plans A, B as well as C, and probably some more, the performances finally took place within the narrow time-frame between various lockdown measures imposed upon the concert venues in London. 

Although the planned main event, a marathon live concert featuring all five piano concertos at the Barbican Hall, scheduled on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s baptismal on 17 December 2020, eventually fell victim of Covid restrictions, the recorded performances form LSO St Lukes provide us with a poignant document of ravishing music-making during the all the bleak hardships of our pandemic era. 

As Zimerman was setting out to perform his London concerts, thirty one years had passed since the pianist first embarked upon recording the Beethoven concerti. Preserved on audio and video by DG, Zimerman began his first cycle 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. It is perhaps our superficial familiarity with the repertoire that often betrays the sheer assault of originality embedded in the scores themselves, 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.

As is well known, the score we’ve always known as the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795/1800), was not the first one Beethoven actually composed. In addition to the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B flat major, 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. 

Before the December 2020 performance with Zimerman and Rattle, the previous appearance 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 recording, 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 was 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.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19 (1787-89/1795) is the earliest of Beethoven’s surviving entries into the medium. As indicated by the concerto’s numbering, it was the second one to be published, with its first printed edition released in December 1801, over six years after its first performance. Interestingly, if we take into account the Concerto in E flat, of 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. 

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. 

The LSO conducted by Sir Simon Rattle with Krystian Zimmerman on piano in rehearsal for the Beethoven cycle in LSO St Luke’s on Friday 4 December 2020. © Mark Allan

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), also recorded by the LSO and Rattle in the winter of 2020. 

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. 

On the DG recording, 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.

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.

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 movement’s diverse ingredients, Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO deliver an outing of a lifetime. Emerging from the prolonged silence imposed upon concert halls by the pandemic counter-measures, the performance comes off as an apotheosis of the very essence of our humanity; joie de vivre reborn in sound.     

The cycle’s conclusion, Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (1809-10), was recorded live at LSO St Lukes on 13 December, coupled with Igor Stravinsky’s eloquent ballet score Apollon musagète (1927-28/1947) on the first half. This being a Beethoven release, it is hardly surprising that the Stravinsky ballet was excluded from the audio and video recordings.  

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. 

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.    

In terms of album presentation, the Pure audio Blu-ray rendition certainly provides high-end listening experience for the whole cycle. Clad in admirable sonic clarity, enhanced by top-class spatial focus, the audio masters are beautifully engineered for both the CD and the Blu-ray editions. However, the absolute gem on the DG set is the Blu-ray video disc. In this case, the visual aspect does enhance the intense intimacy of these recordings. 

Seeing Zimerman, Rattle and the LSO perform at the beautifully-lit Jerwood Hall, with safety distances, will stand as a reminder of all the struggles fought and won by the whole team in order to make these concerts and recordings happen within the brief temporal window left open between the lockdowns in the pandemic-ridden London. As such, the DG deluxe edition is not only one of the finest sets commemorating Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, but also a resounding documentation of an era. Thus, looking back at all the releases brought forth by 2021, referring to this album with the epithet of Video Recording of the Year seems highly appropriate indeed.  

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Krystian Zimerman, piano

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795/1800)

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

Ludwig van Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1800-01)

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

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

Recorded live at Jerwood Hall, LSO St Lukes on 5 December 2020 (Concertos Nos. 1 & 3), 9 December 2020 (Concertos Nos. 2 & 4) and 13 December 2020 (Concerto No. 5)

Deutsche Grammophon 4861430 (2021), 3 CDs, 1 Blu-ray audio & 1 Blu-ray video

© Jari Kallio 

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