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A revelation: Krystian Zimerman tackles Brahms with the LSO

What a rare and uplifting experience it is to hear a performance of such quality, depth of feeling and maturity as that given of Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor by such august forces as Krystian Zimerman, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony. For someone who isn’t a fan of this concerto, with its overlong first movement that can seem to strain to express emotions that are just out of reach, this performance was a revelation.

It was in that first movement where the considerable virtues of the interpretation were most in evidence. From the turbulent outset, Rattle and the LSO seemed to be on fire, producing an extraordinary clarity and depth of sound. In the quiet secondary themes, Rattle brought out a pianissimo in the strings that was truly thrilling, without allowing the underlying pulse to drag at all.

This evening gave the perfect platform for Zimerman’s understated entrance and paved the way for a performance that was completely in tune with the orchestra and in tune with itself. This wasn’t a ‘virtuoso’ performance with the soloist centre stage, although when he needed technical brilliance and power he was more than capable of delivering and rising above the complex orchestral textures. What struck me about Zimerman’s performance was his rhythmic expressivity, in which he unerringly found the right level of drama, passion and delicacy in this movement, without indulging in interpretive byways and disturbing the structural integrity.

Likewise the Adagio was given a performance that brought out all the best qualities of the movement. The interplay between soloist and orchestra was seamless, with dynamics sensitively judged. In the Finale there was a real sense of release, with an ideally set tempo from the outset. Zimerman brought out a sense of joie de vivre reminding us that this was a work by a young composer with an immense musical landscape still to explore.

We moved across the border to Bohemia for an all Dvořák second half to the concert and it certainly whetted the audience’s appetite for the delights that are to come with the new partnership between Rattle and the LSO. In these performances of two of the four late tone poems based on the gruesome stories of Karel Erben, a recent addition to Rattle’s repertoire, you certainly felt there was already a connection between conductor and orchestra. In The Wild Dove, the last and most original of the set, you find Dvořák’s harmonic language at its most advanced and his orchestration at its most original. This dark tale of a murderess wife who is driven to suicide by the cooing of a wild dove over her husband’s grave, opens with a murky opening passage which culminates in a mock tragedy, then leads to a series of quirky dances, then collapses. All these changes in mood and colour were characterised sharply, with the orchestra demonstrating a wonderful flexibility of tone in all departments, responsive to every demand put upon them by Rattle.

As a reference point to emphasise the folk origins of the tone poems, one of the Slavonic Dances was lusciously played before the final piece, The Golden Spinning Wheel. This is the most ambitious and straightforward of the tone poems, belying the complexity of the story it depicts. Its tone is more openly romantic and heroic, leading to a satisfying happy ending/brilliant coda. Again Rattle and the LSO were supremely receptive to the colours and the dramatic structure of the piece, with a salty Slavic edge to the tone at times which was most appropriate.

As if this wasn’t already my concert of the year so far, Rattle spoke to the audience in that supreme communicator way of his and offered up another four minutes of music in the shape of another Slavonic Dance from the Op.72 set, this time no.7 in C major, which is as he said “pure joy”, sending everyone home with a smile on their faces.


Von Chris Garlick


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© 2010-2021 by Krystian Zimerman
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