Magnificent Brahms from Zimerman and Rattle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Dvořák:  Krystian Zimerman (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle. Barbican Hall, London 2.7.2015 (CC)

Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
DvořákThe Wild Dove.
Slavonic Dance, Op. 72/4.
The Golden Spinning Wheel.
 Slavonic Dance, Op. 72/7


Luxury casting here for this high-profile concert by the LSO’s Principal Conductor-designate, Sir Simon Rattle: the baton is passed to him, as it were, in September 2017. Krystian Zimerman will return in a year’s time to play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with this orchestra and conductor. Here he gave a simply stunning performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, a work he has recorded with Rattle and the Berliners (review) as well as, previously, with Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG).

The rapport between Rattle and the LSO bodes extraordinarily well for the future. The long orchestral exposition to the first movement was powerful and vast (despite the fairly rapid tempo). The dynamic range was huge, too, from chthonic fortissimi to the quietest of pianissimi. A hard act for most pianists to follow, certainly, and Zimerman’s response was almost superhuman in its almost perfectly modulated phrasing and textural balance; more, his grasp of the Barbican’s famously problematic acoustics was total. From the back of the stalls, legato lines were perfectly projected. Technically commanding, his sound, bass-led and of proper Brahmsian depth, was ideal. The rapport between pianist and conductor seemed positively telepathic.

The central Adagio acted as a reminder of what makes up great Brahms playing: impeccable voice-leading and a sense of exploration of inner worlds. Certainly, Zimerman’s perfect trills must come in for mention, but it was the overall sense of peace that held the attention. The rapid, varied finale emerged as every inch the equal of the preceding two movements. A terrific performance, encore-less alas (not that one was expected from this source).

The all-Dvořák second half held many delights, but there was a question as to whether the two halves should have been reversed. It would not be the first time Brahms’ First had concluded a concert, and perhaps it would have left a truly indelible, rather than a lasting, impression. Still, it was good to hear two of  Dvořák’s Erben-inspired tone poems, pieces that do not enjoy regular outings outside of the Czech Republic. “Authentic” recordings by the likes of Chalabala and Ančerl are supplemented by an excellent set of recordings by Harnoncourt and the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Warner Classics (review). The first, The Wild Dove (‘Holoubek’) tells a sad story of a tortured soul who murders her first husband, then remarries; when a wild dove appears at her dead husband’s grave, the guilt becomes too much and she commits suicide. There was much to enjoy in Rattle’s reading; indeed, much to luxuriate in. The phrasing throughout, from whichever section, was gloriously sensitive, and the balance of the strings in particular evidenced a care that perhaps one yearned after with this orchestra under Gergiev (the payback in Gergiev’s case was the occasional seat-of-the-pants ride).  A couple of off-stage trumpets added to the sense of story-telling so vital to these pieces, but it was the radiant close that was truly magnificent. Despite all of this, however, the sense was that the level of music-making was just a tad below that of the Brahms. Superb but not great, perhaps. If the first Dvořák Slavonic Dance was more expressive than one might expect, it was none the worse for it (the second acted as encore).

The Golden Spinning Wheel (“Zlaty Kolovrát”) is pure fairy tale, including a wicked, murdering step-mother; the re-memberment of the heroine Dornicka’s body (a golden spinning wheel – that of the title- is used in exchange for missing body parts); and a beautiful fairy-tale ending. Here it was the lively rhythms that gave the performance its vitality, while woodwind in particular conveyed the distanced innocence of fairy-tale. Lovely bright climaxes, creamy lower brass and a real sense of jubilation at the close made this performance particularly special.

Colin Clarke

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