Krystian Zimerman, Sir Simon Rattle, and Ludwig van Beethoven: three exceptional musicians and five great piano concertos are brought together for a landmark recording. This release is among the biggest highlights to conclude our Beethoven anniversary celebrations.
Over 30 years ago, in 1989, Krystian Zimerman and Leonard Bernstein recorded Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos. 3, 4 and 5. They were united in their total dedication to music – in mind, heart and soul – resulting in an exceptional recording. Sadly, Bernstein died before the cycle was recorded in completion. Zimerman went on to conduct the remaining Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 from the keyboard in 1991. Now, 30 years after his first recordings, Zimerman returns to Beethoven’s Piano Concertos. He offers an exceptional new interpretation recorded with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra.
The artists’ performances of the five concertos will be screened over three days on Deutsche Grammophon’s online platform, DG Stage
: Concertos Nos.1 and 3 on 17 December
, Nos.2 and 4 on 19 December
and No.5, the “Emperor”, on 21 December
. Tracing a path from Classicism to Romanticism, the five works are masterpieces of a genre revolutionised by Beethoven. It was as a virtuoso pianist that he first made his name and he premiered all but the Fifth Concerto himself – his deafness was so serious by then that he no longer felt confident about performing in public.
Zimerman and Rattle, both considered authorities on performing Beethoven, have made three previous recordings together for Deutsche Grammophon: Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1, Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto and Bernstein’s Symphony No.2, “The Age of Anxiety”. Their unique rapport is based on years of shared ideals and mutual respect. Gramophone has described it as “a thing of wonder”, praising their “thrilling sense of purpose”.
Rattle says of their partnership, “When we started working together there was a feeling of complete, natural communication. I do look at him, but I don’t need to: there’s a feeling that we know where we’re going to breathe. It’s like having a brother. Organically, this works.”
Despite being internationally renowned today as a Chopin specialist, Zimerman was more closely associated with Beethoven early in his career, after winning the Hradec u Opavy Ludwig van Beethoven International Piano Competition in 1973. In 1989, he made his first recording of the Beethoven piano concertos, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Sadly, Bernstein died before that cycle was complete; the pianist went on to conduct the remaining works, Nos.1 and 2, from the keyboard in 1991.
Acknowledging the inspiration both conductors have given him, Zimerman says, “Leonard Bernstein gave me the courage and confidence to be daring with my interpretations, trying out musical ideas that were completely new. I have found almost the same approach, however, in one other conductor: Simon Rattle.”
The 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth provided the pianist with the perfect reason to return to works to which he is profoundly attached. “I had not played these pieces for a few years and I miss them,” he says. “Some concertos you can play all your life and still feel hungry for them. To these concertos, Beethoven belongs.”
“When I was a small boy I had a little statue of Beethoven on my piano and I remember my subconscious feeling that this was an old composer, an old man. Today I am seven years older than Beethoven ever managed to be and I have a lot of warm feelings towards him as a younger colleague. I used to play the First Concerto as a very serious piece, but today I don’t think like that. I can suddenly have fun playing it more lightly, with more joy.”
After researching Beethoven’s pianos, Zimerman, who has a deep practical understanding of the instrument’s mechanics, has devised different keyboard actions to suit the various concertos. Being convinced that the Fourth Piano Concerto could only have been written on a Walter, he created a keyboard with the appropriate features.
“One thing I love about Krystian is his endless curiosity,” says Rattle. “Here, he wants the colour of an early piano, but the power and possibilities of a modern grand, giving himself the best of both worlds. His keyboard for the Fourth Concerto made the piano sound entirely different, more lyrical but crystal at the same time.”
Because of social distancing regulations, the orchestra was spaced right across the Jerwood Hall at LSO St Luke’s. Using protective screens, the string players sat 1.5 metres apart and woodwind and brass 2 metres. “Sometimes it feels like blowing smoke signals over a mountain,” comments Rattle. “But there’s something about the effort that almost suits Beethoven. The struggle is part of his style.”
“If any of us were ever guilty of taking music for granted, that time has gone,” he adds. “This reminds us of how important and how pure Beethoven’s music is. He’s a wonderful person to converse with at the end of such a strange time.”