Brahms – Zimerman/Rattle

0 of 5 stars

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Recorded in September 2003 & December 2004 in Scoring Stage, Berlin

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: July 2006
CD No: DG 477 6021
Duration: 51 minutes

Krystian Zimerman is a fine example of that rare and exotic species – the eccentric great pianist. He schedules about 50 concerts a year, several of which are cancelled, and he insists on travelling with and preparing his own piano. Musically he can spend years studying a piece; the booklet note for this release reveals that he has listened to over 80 recordings of Brahms’s D minor Concerto – and, rather intimidatingly, Zimerman is also an expert on the history of the piano and interpretation!

Somewhat remarkably in the 24 years that he has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon Zimerman has produced virtually the same number of discs – including both of Brahms’s concertos, with Leonard Bernstein – so his new releases are eagerly anticipated. When the disc arrived two things struck me: first there is a ‘Limited Edition’ sticker on the front and I have no idea what this means, while on the rear there is some non-attributed, spurious claim that this is “the definitive new recording” of the work! Second the playing time of 51’23” is a rip-off – given the huge problems that the classical recording industry has, one would have thought that offering value for money might now have greater importance.

With regard to the sound, this is defined and massive; there is huge weight and power and the piano is only marginally too forwardly balanced. However the ‘sound stage’ is totally unreal: there is no sense of natural ambience, and thereby no sense of the venue’s acoustic; this amorphous quality irritated me more on second hearing.

Which brings us to the performance itself. I have chosen to compare Zimerman and Rattle with Solomon’s 1952 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Rafael Kubelík (now on Testament SBT 1041).

The huge opening orchestral introduction is certainly ‘big’ in Rattle’s hands and he doesn’t allow the timpani to dominate as others have done, but more attack and bite from the strings would have added tonal and emotional variety. In the second subject the lack of forward momentum is worrying; the tempo is not too slow but the sound becomes almost impressionistic with little sense of rhythm or purpose and the elusive contours of this very sophisticated tune become blurred. Kubelík and the Philharmonia have no such problems; the strings bite, every phrase is defined and delineated and the Philharmonia’s woodwinds have more character than the Berliners do.

The piano’s sotto voce entry is beautifully phrased by Zimerman, with natural rubato, a gently undulating line and subtle use of the pedal, while the second subject is persuasively moulded, and the first set of trills – a major feature of early Brahms – is steely and controlled. This control is evident throughout the movement, but there is an air of detached grandeur, verging on didacticism in every bar. There is also a tendency to relax unduly in the lyrical interludes, thus making the movement sound episodic as the tension is allowed to drop.

Solomon has no such problems, the basic tempo is faster and his singing tone and absolute command of every facet of the piano allow him to perfectly combine classicism and romanticism. His trilling is an object lesson in the art of touch and weight, and every note and phrase is seamlessly blended. If Zimerman is imperious, then Solomon is noble.

The slow movement brings a richly sonorous introduction from Rattle, but when Zimerman enters he overdoes the pushes and pulls in both tempo and dynamics; this is meant to be expressive, but it sounds self-conscious. Solomon, at a slightly faster tempo, allows the music to breathe and his luminous legato tone is a joy. In the ensuing fragmentary exploration of the theme Zimerman remains – as in the first movement – detached and fails to sustain a true singing line, while Rattle seems to build blocks of sound which lack flow and coherence. Whether this is a requiem or a love song, it needs the emotion to be concentrated and expressive, qualities that both Solomon and Kubelík combine with a sense of innate spirituality, but which elude Zimerman and Rattle.

In the finale, their opening tempo is middle-of-the-road and there isn’t much sense of the dance; it’s all very exact and relentless, but in the second subject Zimerman does introduce some unusual and arresting syncopation. With Solomon there is a sense of improvisation and playfulness – characteristics that one suspects are alien to Zimerman. In the final accelerando Solomon and Kubelík exult, whereas Zimerman and Rattle are massive, but lacking in élan.

So this is a powerful performance of this great concerto, but when compared to Solomon, Zimerman sounds aloof and one-dimensional, and Kubelík and the Philharmonia – a finer orchestra in 1952 than the present-day Berlin Philharmonic – offer vivid and sympathetic support to the twentieth-century’s greatest Brahms pianist.

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