Two Contemplations – The Unanswered Question
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
Krystian Zimerman (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 June, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Krystian Zimerman sat at the pianoforte during Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, which was very well realised: the mystical strings came from the distance of backstage, the probing (beautifully phrased) trumpet from somewhere universal (with an enquiry we all make) and the increasingly quarrelsome flutes were spread out, although there was enough space centrally for there to be no need for two of them to be paired. Ives’s music fades … this time we got a response, for Zimerman immediately found soul and poetry to begin the Beethoven, which was reciprocated by the LSO, but it was a decoy, for Simon Rattle then put his foot on the accelerator and speed became the hallmark, also of the Finale, which was reckless. One can admire Zimerman’s pedigree technique while doubting his instrument’s evenness across its range, and although there was some flexibility of tempo such adjustments came across as contrived. The first-movement cadenza (the more-usual of Beethoven’s two) reminded of Clementi.
The highlight of a performance that otherwise glossed over so much (while trying so hard to be different) was the unexpected dramatic attacca into the second movement (which would have been ruined by injudicious clapping) in which the strings were suitably weighty and vehement to which Zimerman repelled borders with calm contemplation and extra notes due to splitting some chords. Overall the performers had a ball and their teamwork was tangible – if at the expense of the music’s gravity. Usually I rate No.4 as Beethoven’s greatest Piano Concerto, but not on this occasion. Just a few weeks ago Zimerman was being an Olympian on behalf of Schubert.
The Rachmaninov was fitfully engaging. The brooding opening was ripe with potential and the exposition (not repeated) was initially free-flowing but by its close Rattle was indulging the moment and holding up the action; the development took a while to get going but was charted to passionate tumult with surety. The nadir of this first-movement traversal was the addition of an unauthorised timpani stroke on the final note (quite common, sadly), which should be double basses alone (nine players here in a line across the back of the platform, quite imposing). Rattle undermined Rachmaninov’s novel scoring; I’d hoped he would be above such crassness.
The Scherzo contrasted fiery incisiveness with soupy lyricism, and the Adagio, led by the eloquent clarinet of Andrew Marriner, certainly yearned and rhapsodised but the longer it went on the more bogged-down it became; excellent and dedicated playing, mind – refulgent and intense. To complete what emerged here as a ‘symphony in sections’ rather than in four movements, the Finale was well-paced, and well-balanced, as throughout, even if some further cosseting did little more than impede proceedings. Surprisingly, in this context, Rattle then pushed through the grand apotheosis and rushed through the coda, the result being a scramble.