INKPOT#101 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: CHOPIN Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2. Zimerman/Polish Festival Orchestra (DG)

Fredric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op. 11
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op. 21

Krystian Zimerman piano and conductor
Polish Festival Orchestra

459 684-2

2 discs [81:44] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans

Krystian Zimmerman may have had the right idea when it came to the orchestral parts of Chopin’s two concertos. Form a crack orchestra from the best players you can find, undo every preconception about these scores and their “inferiority,” drill the players in re-learning every nuance of these scores, then take the orchestra on tour to make doubly sure they have the pieces down before recording them.

This approach can be extremely expensive and time-consuming, one that can have Accounting and Marketing shouting its collective head off, but it works brilliantly here. These concertos have never sounded as newly-minted or substantial as they do here, though other conductors, most notably Eugene Ormandy with Emil Gilels and Emanuel Ax, and Carlo Maria Giulini with Zimmerman, have shown how significant the orchestra can really be in these scores.Chopin may have lacked experience in orchestration, but he had a pretty fair idea of how he wanted the orchestra to undergird and dovetail with the soloist.

Krystian Zimerman
Photo Susesch Bayat/DGG

Zimmerman has taken on an additional challenge on this recording with the tempi of both works, which are much slower than normal (23:22, 12:47 and 9:46 for the E minor, compared to 19:55, 10:39 and 9:40 in Zimmerman/Giulini, and 15:33, 11:06 and 9:01 in the F minor, as opposed to 14:05, 9:07 and 8:25).

Just as in the Peter Rosel/Kurt Sanderling set of Rachmaninov concertos, the extra time allows themes room to breathe and orchestral players maximum flexibility in phrasing and characterization. It allows the instruments to sing with a rich bel canto line – and if there were any composer who was profoundly influenced by opera and singers, it was Chopin.

With all these points in Zimmerman’s favor, the only person who could have let him down was himself. Unfortunately, he does exactly that. As a conductor, Zimmerman brings many new insights into these concertos, but as a soloist, his performance is enervated much of the time, even labored, compared to his recording with Giulini. He picks up the pace in the Rondo of the E minor, but there is nothing unique here – no shadings, dynamics, rhythmic twists or turns out of the ordinary – and nothing to hold our interest. The Allegro Vivace of the F minor fares better, but not by much.

While I can applaud Zimmerman’s brinkmanship in trying to play these concertos at as slow a speed as the orchestra, let’s face it – once a piano key is struck, the note immediately starts to decay, so maintaining a measured tempo on the piano without becoming static is tricky business. Glenn Gould could manage it fairly well, as did Emil Gilels toward the end of his life. Both those pianists had performances that suffered from too deliberate a pace and became stolid, but they also knew how to shape a line so that it would not fall apart from its own weight.

This threat of collapse has occurred before in Zimmerman’s work. His performance of the Brahms D minor concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG, but no longer available) shared a similar fate to his recording of the Chopin concertos; the orchestra sounded good, but the piano line – and the tension of the whole performance – collapsed from a lack of definition. Zimmerman’s recording of the Chopin Ballades (DG 423090 – full-price) came dangerously close to this point at times, hovering near stasis, but he managed to avert disaster.

Chopin at the pianoThis does not mean Zimmerman should stop taking chances. On the contrary, I am looking forward to future performances that have similar breadth but more shape to make his approach work more effectively on the piano. In a market increasingly flooded with bland, anonymous pianism, musicians like Zimmerman with individual ideas about the performance of their repertoire, who are not afraid to brave the interpretive odds, are fast becoming an endangered species.

A final caveat to this release is that the playing times of these concertos became so long that Deutsche Grammophon placed them on two discs instead of one. This is not really a two-for-one deal, since there is only 81 minutes’ worth of music – barely more than one CD can comfortably contain.

It is too bad Zimmerman did not record any fillers such as the Andante Spinato and Grand Polonaise or the Krakowiak. With only 43 minutes on one disc and 35 minutes on the other, all four of Chopin’s shorter pieces for piano and orchestra could have been accommodated, and would have made a more tempting package than what is offered here.

Jonathan Yungkans went into slow motion writing this review, just like Keanu Reaves in The Matrix.

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756: 20.8.2000 Jonathan Yungkans

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