Philharmonia Orchestra – 11th October

Suite – Mother Goose
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Piano Concerto No.1
La mer

Krystian Zimerman (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 11 October, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was the first concert of the Philharmonia’s season that was played as advertised. The aftermath of 11 September, and other factors, had inflicted major artist changes on the first concerts, with Salonen, Bronfman, Svetlanov and Schiff all not appearing at the Royal Festival Hall.

Yet, the Philharmonia seems to have taken this in its stride. They played with characteristic ebullience for Paavo Järvi, who was making his London debut with the Orchestra (he has conducted them on tour), in this mainly French programme – two delicate Ravel works, and Debussy’s surging musical evocation of the sea. Although not full, and with the sometimes noisy participation of groups of children, this was definitely a concert worth hearing, not least because it included the participation of Krystian Zimerman.

Zimerman’s rigorously self-imposed discipline means that in the first half of any given year he concentrates solely on a recital programme; the back-end of the year is then given over to one single concerto. This year he has broken into his long-planned project to record all of Rachmaninov’s concertante works with the Boston Symphony and Seiji Ozawa, to turn to another early 20th-century composer/pianist, Béla Bartók. He has been asked by Deutsche Grammophon to record Bartók concertos with Pierre Boulez. Thus this concert with Järvi included the First Concerto, which Zimerman goes on to play – and record – at the beginning of November with Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. The Third Concerto follows next year (Zimerman, for whatever reason, doesn’t play the Second Concerto).

It is a measure of this artist that he makes the work he is playing completely his own. In Bartok’s First Concerto, Zimerman’s sense of purpose, razor-point accuracy and sheer power ultimately unbalanced the rest of the programme. To say that he played the concerto for all it was worth only begins to scratch the surface. He pulled no punches, and the Philharmonia – percussion placed immediately in front of Järvi – took their lead from him. In some senses, Bartók’s First Piano Concerto is not music in the melodic sense – It is a study in rhythm and percussion. The piano is at no point used lyrically, and the affect can be utterly relentless. It beats into a cocked hat most other attempts at studies in rhythm (I heard Antheil’s Ballet Mechanique on CD while contemplating this review: its mechanistic shenanigans pale by comparison to Bartók’s pounding motifs and phrases) – this performance left me amazed and shell-shocked.

That took its toll on the refined Gallic partners that Järvi had placed with the concerto. The Mother Goose Suite fared best, because it preceded the Bartók, but despite the beautiful horn solo which characterised the Pavane and the unanimity of purpose in La mer, the second half was subsumed beneath my mind’s continued attempt to grapple with Zimerman’s performance.

It is to be hoped that Järvi will be back with the Philharmonia soon.

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