Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos
When the great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman first recorded all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in Vienna in 1989, the sessions were beset by technical problems. “They put carpets on the walls of the Musikverein, totally destroying the acoustic,” Zimerman tells Apple Music. After that, tragedy struck. Leonard Bernstein, who had been conducting the Vienna Philharmonic for the recordings, passed away halfway through the project. Rather than cancel, Zimerman conducted the First and Second concertos himself from the keyboard. Fast-forward a little more than 30 years to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, and a chance arose for Zimerman to re-record the concertos. “I spoke to [London Symphony Orchestra music director] Simon Rattle and told him that I absolutely had to do them again,” recalls the pianist. “He immediately said yes and suggested we record them with the LSO. He’s a wonderful man and a great friend of mine, and he basically agrees to any idea I have!”
Then, the pandemic struck. Quarantine measures forced Zimerman to spend weeks sleeping in a campervan in November 2020 (“I felt like a scout!”)—it was the only way he could be near his own piano while staying within social distancing rules. During the recording sessions, the players of the London Symphony Orchestra had to be spread out across the entire area of LSO St Luke’s. That presented enormous challenges (“It made it difficult for the instrumental sections to sound homogenic, to sound together in a colour sense”), yet it was also, says Zimerman, a “really great experience.” “It was like chamber music on a great scale,” he says. “Everybody was sharing the music.” Just how that music might have sounded at the beginning of the 19th century is at the forefront of Zimerman’s mind on the album. To get close to it, he brought four bespoke keyboards to the recording, each able to be slotted into the body of the Steinway grand at LSO St Luke’s, and each one ideally suited to its concerto’s unique technical challenges and the subtleties of sound that Zimerman believes Beethoven intended. Read on as the pianist takes us on a personal tour of Beethoven’s five masterpieces.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15/Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op.19 “I don’t make a distinction between No. 1 and 2. For me, they’re very similar in style. Beethoven was a young man when he wrote them, and nothing has changed for the problems of young people today. They were still rebelling against their parents, and you can hear that in the music. In the Piano Concerto No. 2, for example, there are a lot of goofy moments. There’s a place at the end of the final movement where I said to Simon Rattle, ‘I want to play it as goofy as possible. Please don’t be nice here. Just play it as stupid as you can!’ In fact, the final movements of both No. 1 and No. 2 sparkle with humour and jokes. Piano Concerto No. 1 is a very long piece. It’s very serious, but it also has a lot of humour, and the slow movement is one of the most touching of any Romantic composer. Beethoven was clearly already a Romantic when he was composing this work.”
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37 “I remember at the start of the first movement of this concerto that I said to Simon Rattle, ‘I would like the music to be like a piece of rock, but not a beautifully polished rock. Perhaps like a piece of granite.’ Towards the end of the cadenza near the end of the movement, the music is so scary. The second movement could be played as a mass in a church. It’s one of the most personal statements I know from Beethoven—it’s almost religious. And the third movement is incredibly witty. I’ve used extremely fast tempos in some places.”
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 “This concerto contains a lot of revolutionary ideas, such as starting it with solo piano. Audiences expect an orchestral tutti, but of course that doesn’t happen. Instead, the piano starts to improvise. Where is the music headed? Why? What is Beethoven saying here? It’s a shock for the listener who hears it for the first time. Again, this movement has a fabulous cadenza, and its final notes are one of the most touching moments in the history of music for me. It’s so beautiful and so incredibly warm. It expresses Beethoven’s anxieties—a man who could never find a lover and who could never fulfil his inner needs. It’s a place to cry. The second movement of Concerto No. 4 is a shock because it’s not a traditional slow movement but an intermezzo, a discussion between two people, like Christ talking to Pilate. It’s like the music is in conflict. The final movement is a return to joy with the orchestra again competing with the piano. There’s a lot of wit and humour here.”
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor” “The ‘Emperor’ concerto is a completely different story. It’s so much more modern than the last four. It’s a symphony with a piano, where the piano is also the orchestra. Recording this concerto with Simon Rattle was an incredible experience. The second movement is a hit—it’s one of the greatest pieces written by anybody in the 19th century. And the final movement is joyful, but this time it’s a noble sort of joy, the joy of a noble man making polite jokes in an amiable way.”