Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Krystian Zimerman (piano); VPO/Leonard Bernstein
CATALOGUE NO: 435 467-2 DDD
Zimerman is one of the master pianists of our age, and whatever the repertory his performances demand the closest scrutiny. For his first recorded Beethoven cycle he directs the Vienna Philharmonic from the keyboard in the first two concertos, while the remaining three were recorded in concert with Leonard Bernstein in 1989, shortly before the conductor’s death.

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To a large extent the results fulfil expectations. In the opening pair of concertos, especially, Zimerman’s articulation, range of colour and the sheer clarity of his playing are astonishing, and the Vienna orchestra is swept along by his exuberance. When Bernstein is involved things begin to misfire slightly. His grandiose, supercharged treatment of Beethoven is not part of Zimerman’s philosophy: where the pianist is scrupulous in applying the finest detail, Bernstein favours a much broader brush.

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Generally they find a compromise, but occasionally it’s an uneasy one. In its best moments the collaboration produces genuinely creative friction, giving the concertos real urgency and freshness (qualities not easy to come by in these works nowadays), but elsewhere Zimerman appears to have been hurried along where he might have allowed himself more time to explore and illuminate. A passage such as the transition to the finale of the Emperor Concerto has a magical beauty, with every chord perfectly weighted and placed, but there are other moments where that sense of wonder so special to Zimerman’s playing is swept aside for the sake of a much grander effect. Andrew Clements